Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


A Falling Tide Sinks All Boats? The Media May Drown First

Gallup released some interesting data on trends in confidence in “the church or organized religion” yesterday. Key findings include that this is falling among all Americans and that it is lower among Catholics than Protestants.

Gallup isn’t the only survey organization that has been asking Americans about their confidence in institutions. Academics have been doing this as well since 1972 in the General Social Survey (GSS). I tend to prefer the GSS measure to Gallup for two reasons: 1) the response scale for the GSS uses three points whereas Gallup uses four and 2) the GSS asks specifically about confidence in “the people running these institutions” and when referring to religion asks only about “organized religion.”

By comparison, Gallup asks about “the church or organized religion.” I am concerned how a non-Christian may respond to a question with the word “church” in it and more so “the church.” Gallup asks if one has “a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little” confidence. I’ve never been sure how much difference I am supposed to see between “a great deal” or “quite a lot.” If I was at a movie and someone told me they wanted “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of popcorn I’d buy them the large either way! The “quite a lot” seems to be unnecessary and unbalanced on the scale where one can perhaps more clearly distinguish between the GSS scale of “a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence.”

Gallup did a fine job putting the data in context in their release. The researchers note that the decline in confidence in organized religion is consistent with a broader decline for most institutions since 1973 and that organized religion still ranks fourth among the 16 of those they regularly measure. But religion reporters at secular media outlets too often drop the context and go for the “red meat” of the story (as of Friday there were more than 10,000 news items indexed by Google News for this report). I always prefer my news a bit more well-seasoned with the full context of reality (marinated in facts and data for as long as possible).

The table below shows how many Catholics said they had a “great deal of confidence” in the set of institutions regularly measured in the GSS in 1975 and in 2010 (the most recent data available). Organized religion sits squarely in the middle of the set and has lost about 5 percentage points in the last 35 years in terms of Catholics noting a “great deal of confidence” (this change is within margin of error).

Catholics have grown more confident in the people running the military (+23 percentage points), the Executive Branch (+5 percentage points), the Supreme Court (+4 percentage points) and education (+3 percentage points)—although the changes for these latter three institutions are within margin of error. Who have Catholics lost the most confidence in? The press (-15 percentage points) and banks and financial institutions (-17 percentage points). 

In 2010, Catholics exhibited the most confidence in those running the military (59%), the scientific community (44%), and medicine (43%). They exhibited the least amount of confidence in major companies (16%), banks and financial institutions (14%), Congress (14%), organized labor (13%), and the press (10%). 

Oddly, given the Church’s social teachings, organized labor has never captured much confidence among Catholics. Banks, financial institutions, and major companies were viewed more positively by Catholics in the 1970s and have taken a steep dive since the recession (Note: banks and financial institutions were not included in the GSS until 1975).

Catholics have shown consistent confidence in the Supreme Court. It would be interesting to have more current data to see if the Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act has moved opinion in any different direction. Confidence in the Executive Branch and Congress move up and down together and often higher in good economic times and lower in recessions.

Catholics have consistently had high confidence levels (relative to other institutions) in leadership in the scientific community and medicine. Educations lags slightly behind but is on an upswing.

Catholic confidence in the military has risen sharply during wars in the last two decades. Organized religion achieved its highest confidence ratings among Catholics in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the early 1990s this has dipped a bit and then sharply so in 2002 as news of clergy sex abuse cases made headlines across the country. It has recovered a bit from that low (...the more recent Gallup data may foreshadow a drop in the 2012 GSS, which has not been released yet).

The press has been battling it out with organized labor for the institution garnering the least confidence among American Catholics for decades. As of 2012 it was still losing this battle. I wonder why?

Back to what is in the news… In the figure below we aggregate multiple waves of the GSS—the first from 1973 to 1983 and again from 2000 to 2010. This increases sample sizes making it possible to reliably compare changes in confidence in religion among those of different affiliations.

Unlike the Gallup data, the GSS data indicate almost no difference between Catholics and Protestants. The boost among Protestants in the Gallup data appears to be related to use of the 4-point scale and possibly the word “church.” When this is collapsed into three more evenly “spaced” responses and respondents are evaluating “organized religion” the difference between Catholics and Protestants is negligible. As one might expect Nones, those without a religious affiliation, were very unlikely to have a “great deal of confidence” in organized religion in the 1970s and still are now.

There certainly is a crisis in confidence in America. As the Gallup researchers noted, Americans seem to be losing confidence in most institutions. This does not appear to be just a “religious thing.” Why? I think part of it has to do with the press. We may not trust it but we watch, listen, and read. Since the early 1970s I would argue that journalism has become more cynical, certainly more partisan in the last decade in both directions (e.g., Fox News, MSNBC), and it is on 24 hours a day on TV, posted in our social networks, and distributed instantly on Twitter. 

The reputation of institutions has taken a beating in this evolution—often rightfully so. All this “bad news” has also turned us on the messenger as well—often rightly so. And perhaps it is a good thing to have less confidence in so many institutions. Having too much trust could be dangerous. As a scientist I always try to be a skeptic. As a good citizen it might be better to be more of a cynic. 

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