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Americans' confidence in organized religion has sunk to a 39-year low, according to a new Gallup survey.
Forty-four percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “the church or organized religion,” according to the survey. That's down from 48 percent in 2011, and continues a general downward trend in the annual survey since a peak of 68 percent in 1975.
The religion question was part of Gallup's 2012 update of its annual “Confidence in Institutions” survey, taken annually since 1973.
While organized religion sank, it fared better than many other institutions. Others, such as public schools, banks and television news hit all-time lows. Only the military (75 percent), small business and the police commanded more responses of “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence. And many institutions inspired much less, with Congress pulling up the rear with 13 percent.
Gallup doesn't ask why people feel the way they do, so it can only be surmised. The survey also doesn't define “the church or organized religion.”
In an article on the survey, Gallup Senior Editor Lydia Saad noted that organized religion was the most highly rated institution in the survey in most years from 1973 through 1985. It fell below 60 percent in the mid- to late-1980s, around the time of scandals involving televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, Saad wrote.
More recent lows followed clergy sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.
Saad said in an interview that it wasn't clear what drove the dip this year from 2011. The survey did find that significantly fewer Catholics — 46 percent — expressed confidence in organized religion than did Protestants — 56 percent.
Gallup did not break down the numbers by other religious affiliations or people with no religious affiliation. Saad said their numbers were too small to analyze. Of those groups combined — everybody but Protestants and Catholics — only 29 percent said they had “great” or “quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion.
The survey is not, Saad said, a measure of Americans' personal religiosity; rather, it's how they feel about organized religion.
The survey was taken June 7 through 10, with a random sample of 1,004 adults, age 18 or older, living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.
Eileen Burke-Sullivan, an associate professor of theology at Creighton University, said the numbers could reflect recent headlines.
At the time of the survey, a prominent Philadelphia priest was about to go on trial for covering up sex abuse. Many American Catholics were abuzz about a Vatican investigation into U.S. women's religious orders, with some defending Rome and others holding vigils and demonstrations for the nuns. There was a dust-up between bishops and the Girl Scouts.
Meanwhile, many Protestant churches have continued to have conflicts over such issues as same-sex marriage and gay clergy.
And Americans remain politically polarized — and generally fit to be tied over their political leadership.
The confidence in organized religion numbers could reflect “a general malaise in the United States about leadership of any kind,” Burke-Sullivan said. “This kind of research is only helpful in showing that people don't trust the leadership right now, but it doesn't tell us why they don't trust the leadership.”
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