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Church And Clergy Have Fallen Out Of Favor, New Polls Show


There are two interesting new polls out this month that show evidence of a change in U.S. culture that's been developing for a while now. Americans are finding less meaning in organized religion, and they are less confident that ministers are able to help them. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: There are several pieces to this story. More people have been saying they have no religious affiliation. Church attendance is down sharply. And now, a new Gallup poll finds that barely 1 in 3 Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in church or organized religion. That's an all-time low, well below that of other institutions - quite a change from 1973 when the question was first asked.

Mohamed Younis is Gallup's editor-in-chief.

MOHAMED YOUNIS: It was the institution that garnered the most public confidence compared to all the others, whether it's the military, police, various branches of government.

GJELTEN: And more sober findings in a poll by The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center, NORC - 3 of 4 Americans say they rarely or never consult clergy. Peter Marty, the senior pastor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, is not surprised people don't hold ministers in high regard given how many don't even set foot in church.

PETER MARTY: If I never enter a restaurant or a dance hall that I drive by every day, you know, I have no reason to be particularly confident of what's happening inside of there, from the food to the DJ.

GJELTEN: But the declining view of clergy holds even among people who do go to church. Marty has an explanation for that as well.

MARTY: People used to come to us because we either knew something they didn't know or they needed help. Well, you can get help anywhere you want on the Internet nowadays.

GJELTEN: A big change from the olden days in America, says Gerardo Marti, a sociology of religion professor at Davidson College.

GERARDO MARTI: Once upon a time, it was the pastor who was the most educated and the most capable of dealing with the emotional lives of people or the practical necessities in a community in which they understood the community and knew what was going on.

GJELTEN: And could connect congregants with someone who could help them. Another reason people don't look to pastors so much, Marti says many pastoral duties are now carried out by lay people.

MARTI: Ordinary members who are willing to go to the hospital, bring meals to people's homes.

GJELTEN: One other important point - organized religion has suffered more than other institutions but almost all have seen their reputations decline. Gallup's Younis says, because people are more connected, they know more about the institutions that serve them, including the bad things.

YOUNIS: Information about, you know, mistreatment of funds or mistreatment of congregants tends to travel a lot quicker than in many of the decades when we were asking these questions.

GJELTEN: One institution that has gained confidence among Americans in the last four decades - the U.S. military. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.