Charting clergy trust

Why are clergy honesty and ethics rankings at an all-time low?

By Bill Leonard

“Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields — very high, high, average, low, very low.”

That’s the question asked in a Gallup poll regarding ethics and the professions taken Dec. 5-8. Nurses were rated the highest at 82 percent. Lobbyists, members of Congress and “car salespeople” hit rock bottom at 6 percent, 8 percent, 9 percent respectively.

Meanwhile, the “honesty and ethical standards” of clergy were rated at 47 percent, the first time that figure has dropped below 50 percent since Gallup began asking this question in 1977. They reached their highest ethical standards-ranking at 67 percent around 1985. In this year’s survey, 11 percent of respondents rated clergy as “very low” on the ethics scale.

What’s happening here? Is this a temporary drop in a fluctuating public, or does it reflect a serious spiral? Is this “just another survey” with limited implications for reality, or is it worth contemplating even if only a limited public perception of clergy ethics — one brief but troubling snapshot?

Again, the survey does not pursue the question of whether American clergy actually do reflect high “honesty and ethical standards,” but offers indication of public perception of clergy honesty. Why this drop in ethical credibility? My suggestions are representative and not definitive; more interrogative than prescriptive.

First, while these statistics reflect a new low, Gallup reports that clergy have never been rated as high as nurses, pharmacists and “grade school teachers.” For the last 20 years they have been ranked somewhere in the 50 percentile of those polled. Good but not off the charts. The current ranking puts clergy near “day care providers” and judges, both at 46 percent. That’s not terrible, but all of those professionals would surely hope to be higher on the honesty scale.

Second, let’s admit it: some clergy are unethical, dishonest and even corrupt. We know that because some get caught in sins and crimes related to money, sex, power and cheating (don’t forget plagiarism). Clergy are human; clergy sin. But their profession (dare we say calling) puts them in positions in which they both represent and dispense ethical standards in the society. When ministers fall they take some of the credibility of their “office” with them.

Third, is it possible that the growing number of “nones,” those who identify themselves as having little or no engagement in institutional religion, impacts this study? As the number of “nones” expands, fewer Americans may have direct contact with clergy in their own lives. Their opinions may be influenced by what they hear about discredited ministers in the media. Or, are certain people distancing themselves from organized religion because of the clergy they know?

Fourth, is it possible that concerns related to sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy, particularly Roman Catholic clergy, have taken their toll on public perceptions? Recent revelations of new cases of sexual impropriety in certain Catholic dioceses and continuing allegations of cover-ups by church hierarchy no doubt continue to influence public attitudes toward ministers in general.

Fifth, is it possible that the multiple venues of social media ensure the possibility that cases of moral turpitude against clergy will be more widely known? Localized stories related to unethical behavior of specific clergy in specific settings can be posted on Facebook and in other public media. Clergy failings are increasingly made more public and people judge accordingly.

Sixth, speaking of media, is it possible that some questions of clergy honesty grow out of public perception that many so-called “media preachers” are more concerned with money — a “prosperity gospel” — than the care of souls? Clergy materialism related to cars, private planes and mansions, often associated with famous media-based preachers, may shape public understanding of the ministry itself.

Finally, does the participation of clergy in political activities across the theological and ideological spectrum lead some people to question their ethics? Is political engagement seen as an expression of conscience or compromise with the “principalities and powers of this present age?”

Are politically active clergy viewed as persons of conviction or persons seeking political power? What seems conviction in one religious context may be perceived as bigotry or unethical social behavior in the public arena. Misperceptions of clergy actions in the public square may go with the job.

Questions of clergy ethics are nothing new. The Didache, written around 110 C.E. warns congregations to accept visiting “prophets” as they would “the Lord,” but permit them to stay only two days. The document adds of such second century clergy: “if he asks for money he is a false prophet.”

Twenty-first century American clergy offer compassion, care and conviction in response to the needs of individuals and families, faith communities and communities in general. Living with their humanity and their calling is at once an exhilarating and daunting vocation. The standards and the stakes are high. At least they aren’t in Congress.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.