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The Gallup Organization conducts two polls at irregular intervals, in order to assess the degree of confidence that the American people have in various groups of people and in social institutions. 1 Since the polls are repeated from time to time, they give an indication of trends: whether confidence is increasing or slipping.

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Confidence in groups of people:

The pollsters ask the question: For each of the following groups, please tell me whether most of the people in them can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with them?" 2

Results from the 2002-JUL-5 to 8 poll involved a randomly chosen national sample of 1,013 adults. The sampling error is about 3%. Gallup states that "In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls." 2

Some of the results were:

Group Can be trusted Can't be too careful Other, or depends No opinion
Teachers 84% 15% <1% 1%
Small business owners 75 22 2 1
Military officers 73 24 1 2
Police officers 71 26 2 1
Youth sports coaches 68 28 1 3
Doctors 66 31 2 1
Protestant ministers 66 26 2 6
Catholic priests 45 48 2 5
Government officials 26 69 3 2
Lawyers 25 70 3 2
Stockbrokers 23 68 2 7

Civil servants, lawyers and stockbrokers obviously have a serious credibility problem. We have seen other polls which show that people trust their own lawyer, while being quite distrustful of lawyers as a group. Perhaps the same is true of stockbrokers and politicians.

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Confidence in religious and other social institutions:

In a separate poll of 1,020 randomly selected adults, Gallup asked about their feelings towards 16 institutions. They were asked whether they had:

bullet A great deal,
bullet Quite a lot,
bullet Some,
bullet Very little, or
bullet No

confidence in the institutions.

First place, as expected, was held by the U.S.  military; 76% had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence.

But the most interesting data related to organized religion. From 1973 to the mid-1980s, religious institutions obtained many ratings above 60%. Ratings suffered in 1989 due to the televangelist scandals involving embezzlement and sexual improprieties by Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baaker and other Christian leaders. Confidence sank to only 52%. a 30 year low. In 2001, it had risen to 59%. But by 2002, it had sank to 45% -- a drop of 14 percentage points in one year. This represents a 20-year low.

2002 results were:

bullet 26% had a "great deal" of confidence;
bullet 19% had "quite a lot;"
bullet 32% had "some;"
bullet 18% had "very little;"
bullet 3% had no confidence.
bullet 2% had no opinion

Since about 75% of Americans now identify themselves as Christians, (down from 86% in 1990) the confidence in religious institutions relate primarily to Christian denominations.

The Gallop pollsters wrote: "There is little question that the sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church is the main cause of the drop-off in confidence this year." In 1990. there was essentially no difference in the ratings given by Catholics and Protestants. But in 2002, only about 42% of Roman Catholics had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion; this compares with 59% for Protestants.

James Guth, professor of political science at Furman University said that the results could impact a number of social issues. He speculated that: "This may have an impact on the success of pro-life groups verses the pro-choice groups."

Referring to the sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church, Mary L. Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University said: "There's been an awful lot of media attention on the bishops. [They will tell us] 'I have no confidence in the church as a whole, but my bishop is OK.' "

American Atheists commented: "The figures are all the more remarkable, considering the efforts of President Bush and assorted politicians and clergy to the rally the nation under the banner of religious faith following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.  Despite the Islamic religious affiliation of the terrorists who executed the mass murders, Bush and others have continually emphasized the need for belief in God and the rituals of ecumenical faith as a sort of cultural armament against 'evil-doers'.3

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  1. The Gallup Organization's web site is at:
  2. "Americans Express Little Trust in CEOs of Large Corporations or Stockbrokers: Four in 10 believe most people can be trusted; teachers are most trusted group," at:
  3. "Despite September 11, confidence in religion ebbs: Worse Ratings Than During Televangelist Scandal, Reports Gallup," AANEWS, 2002-JUL-18.

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Copyright 2001 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-JUL-18
Latest update: 2004-OCT-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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