Americans who see pastors as highly ethical and honest people are in the minority. Only 39 percent of the respondents to Gallup’s latest Honesty and Ethics list ranked clergy members as having “very high”/“high” standards, bringing the category close to its all-time low of 37 percent.
“This marks the second time since Gallup began surveying Americans about their trust of various occupations that fewer than 2 in 5 gave clergy the highest ratings,” said Lifeway Research’s Aaron Earls.
In contrast, nurses set a record high score with 89 percent in the “very high”/”high” categories. Medical doctors came in second at 77 percent, grade-school teachers were third at 75 percent, and pharmacists were fourth at 71 percent. Police officers made the top five rankings at 52 percent and were therefore among the only five professions in which a majority of Americans expressed confidence. Congress members and car salespeople received the lowest ratings in the “very high”/”high” categories at eight percent.
Key Findings on American Perceptions of Clergy Ethics
Gallup first introduced its Honesty and Ethics list in 1976 and has conducted this survey annually since 1990. The company changes which professions it asks people about from year to year, but always keeps a few of the same occupations on every list. The most recent Honesty and Ethics list, released December 2020, asked people to assess 15 different occupations by answering the following question: “Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields—very high, high, average, low or very low?”
The majority of respondents (41 percent) said that the ethical standards of pastors and clergy members were “average.” Only 10 percent said those standards were “very high,” while 29 percent said they were “high.” Eleven percent said the ethical standards of clergy were “low,” four percent said they were “very low,” and four percent said they had “no opinion.” More people responded “no opinion” regarding the ethics of clergy members than they did for any other profession.
The report showed that confidence in the trustworthiness of clergy members has been declining since the early 2000s. In 2004, 56 percent of respondents ranked clergy members as having “very high”/“high” ethical standards. The percentage of people who gave this answer fluctuated in the following years, but stayed below 60 percent. In 2013, the percentage of people who rated the ethical standards of clergy as “very high”/“high” dropped to 47 percent, and respondents’ answers remained below 50 percent until 2018. That year, confidence in the clergy hit an all-time low with only 37 percent of Americans saying they thought the ethical standards of clergy members were “very high”/“high.” Confidence rose slightly in 2019 to 40 percent, but this year’s results show it is down again.
Among the notable findings on American views of clergy ethics is that more women than men said clergy members had “very high” ethical standards. White people expressed more confidence in the clergy than people of color, older people expressed greater confidence than younger people, and Republicans expressed more confidence than Independents and Democrats.
Speculations on the Results
Nurses have been the consistent winners on Gallup’s Honesty and Ethics list since the profession was added in 1999. The only time nurses have not been rated the most trustworthy profession was in 2001 (the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) when firefighters were rated the highest. This year, American confidence in nurses increased by four percentage points compared to 2019, the previous record high for the profession.
Gallup observed that survey respondents rated pharmacists, medical doctors, nurses, and grade-school teachers highly—and with partisan support—in a year that proved to have particular challenges for people in those occupations. The response regarding public confidence in the police did not change significantly compared to 2019’s results. This is an interesting finding given the racial tensions that have been at the forefront of 2020 and the fact that shortly after the death of George Floyd, public opinion about the police was at 48 percent. “Whether this means the public opinion effects of the Floyd event have faded,” said Gallup, “or that police officers as individuals are held less responsible for police violence than the police as an institution, is not clear.”
Gallup did not offer a view as to why public opinion of the clergy has been declining over the past two decades. However, Earls notes that the timing of the decline corresponds to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church and pointed out that sexual abuse scandals in other denominations have also come to light during this timeframe.