NORC/AP Poll Says Americans Find Pastors Increasingly Irrelevant

(Photo by Kristina Paparo on Unsplash)

In her 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson sketches a portrait of the Rev. John Ames, a small-town pastor in 1950s Iowa who is humble, self-aware, compassionate and devoted to his family and his congregation, and they to him.

Americans no longer hold clergy in such high regard, according to a recent poll, and even regular churchgoers are seeking counsel elsewhere.

A NORC/AP poll of 1,137 adults released this month shows that doctors, teachers, members of the military—even scientists—are viewed more positively than clergy. The less frequently people attend church, the more negative their views. Among those who attend less than once a month, only 42% said they had a positive view of clergy members—a rate comparable to that of lawyers, who rank near the bottom of the list of professions.

While frequent church attenders still hold clergy in high regard—about 75% viewed them positively—they give them only passing grades on a number of personal attributes. Only 52% of monthly churchgoers consider clergy trustworthy (that number drops to 23% among those who attend less than once a month) and 57% said they were honest and intelligent (compared with 27% and 30% among infrequent attenders).

“If you buy into the religious worldview, then the religious leader looks completely different than if you don’t buy into the religious worldview,” said Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary. “The perception from the outside is pretty bleak.”

The survey confirms previous studies. A 2018 Gallup survey of the public’s views of the honesty and ethical standards of a variety of occupations found that only 37% of Americans viewed clergy “very highly” (with 43% having an “average” view of clergy). It was the lowest Gallup recorded since it began examining occupations in 1977.

Historians say public attitudes about clergy have been waning since the 1970s, in tandem with the loss of trust in institutions after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The rise of the religious right and evangelical involvement in politics, beginning in 1979 with the creation of the Moral Majority, also played a role.

“What that did was create a certain polarization of views of the clergy,” said E. Brooks Holifield, professor emeritus of American church history at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “The televangelist scandals contributed to that. The sexual abuse among Catholics. All that created suspicion of the clergy.”

Perhaps as troubling, the NORC/AP poll, conducted May 17-20, showed that even monthly churchgoers don’t want clergy influence in their lives on a number of issues.

Americans across the board said they didn’t want clergy input when it came to family planning, child rearing, sex, careers, financial decision-making, medical decision-making or voting. Clergy, the poll suggests, are growing irrelevant.

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SOURCE: Charisma News