November 15, 2019

Americans Have Positive Views About Religion's Role in Society, but Want It Out of Politics

2. Most congregants trust clergy to give advice about religious issues, fewer trust clergy on personal matters

A majority of U.S. adults think religious leaders have high or very high ethical standards (65%). And among those who attend religious services at least a few times a year, an even larger share have similarly positive ratings about the ethical behavior of the clergy at their congregation (88%).

The survey also finds that a majority have “a lot” of confidence in their clergy to give advice about clearly religious matters, such as growing closer to God (68%). But fewer are very confident that their clergy could give advice about parenting, mental health problems or finances. When asked how comfortable they would be seeking out advice from their clergy, most say they would be at least “somewhat comfortable” bringing a range of personal issues to their religious leaders, though fewer than half would be “very comfortable” doing so, and fully a quarter or more of adults who go to religious services at least a few times a year say they would be “not too” or “not at all” comfortable speaking to their clergy about drug or alcohol issues, problems with anxiety or depression, or financial difficulties.

At the same time, most attenders report that they have at least a “somewhat close” relationship with their clergy (70%), that they are satisfied with the sermons at their church (87%), and that they tend to agree with the opinions they hear when their clergy discuss religion (85%) or politics (62%).

This chapter also explores the frequency with which attenders hear their clergy talking about other religious groups during services, and whether messages about these groups tend to be positive or negative. It also examines the sources of guidance that religiously affiliated U.S. adults trust when seeking information about the teachings of their religion.

Two-thirds in U.S. say religious leaders have high ethical standards

Americans rank ethics of religious leaders below doctors, above politicians, lawyers and journalistsAbout two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) say religious leaders have “high” (54%) or “very high” (10%) ethical standards. Fully three-quarters of Christians (76%) say they think religious leaders generally have high or very high ethical standards. Among religious “nones,” 45% say religious leaders have high or very high ethical standards, while 54% give them “low” or “very low” marks for their ethics.6

Overall, religious leaders rank below medical doctors (whose ethical standards are rated as high or very high by 87% of U.S. adults) and slightly below police officers (70%). But religious leaders receive better marks for their ethical standards than journalists (whose ethical standards are seen as high or very high by 45% of respondents), lawyers (44%) and elected officials (26%).

The survey asked respondents who attend religious services at least a few times a year to rate the ethical standards of the clergy at their own congregation. Nearly nine-in-ten religious attenders give the clergy at their own congregation high (47%) or very high (41%) marks for ethics, compared with 78% of attenders who say the same about religious leaders in general.7

Among U.S. Catholics, those who attend religious services at least yearly are less likely to say the U.S. Catholic bishops as a whole have high or very high ethical standards (69%) compared with the share who say the same about their own parish priests (87%), Pope Francis (83%) or their own bishop (79%).

Most attenders feel they have at least a ‘somewhat close’ relationship with their clergy

Protestants more likely than Catholics to be very close with their clergyRespondents who attend religious services at least a few times a year were asked to assess how close a relationship they have with the clergy or other religious leaders at their place of worship. Overall, roughly seven-in-ten say they have a “very” (19%) or “somewhat” (50%) close relationship, while 29% say they are not close with their clergy.

Within religious groups, majorities say they are very or somewhat close with their clergy – although the most common response across most religious groups is that congregants are “somewhat close” to their clergy. Protestants are more likely than Catholics to say they have a very close relationship with their clergy. Roughly one-quarter of Protestants in the evangelical (28%) and historically black (25%) traditions and one-in-five mainline Protestants (19%) say they are very close with their clergy, compared with 8% of Catholics who say this.

Nearly seven-in-ten attenders very confident clergy can provide advice about growing closer to God

Majority of attenders have 'a lot' of confidence that religious leaders can provide guidance on religious issues, but they have less confidence in other areasMajorities of U.S. adults who attend religious services at least a few times a year have “a lot” of confidence in the clergy or other religious leaders at their place of worship to provide useful guidance about growing closer to God (68%) and the interpretation of scripture (60%). But while many attenders place a high level of trust in their clergy to guide them on religious issues, smaller shares trust their clergy “a lot” to give useful advice about marriage and relationships (47%) or parenting (40%). About one-in-four have a lot of confidence in their religious leaders to provide guidance on mental health problems (27%), and 21% have the same level of confidence in their clergy’s advice about personal finances.

By comparison, religious service attenders express relatively low levels of trust in clergy to give advice about social and political issues. Just four-in-ten say they have a lot of confidence in their religious leaders to provide useful guidance to help inform their opinion about abortion (39%). Even fewer express a lot of confidence in their clergy’s advice about immigration (20%) and global climate change (13%).

On almost all these topics, many other congregants say they have “some” confidence in their clergy to provide guidance, while fewer than half say they have “not much” or “no” confidence.

In general, the opinions of religious groups follow a similar pattern, with most major subgroups of Christians endorsing their clergy’s guidance on clearly religious matters but expressing less confidence in what their religious leaders might say about personal problems.

Among U.S. adults who attend religious services at least a few times a year, evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to have a lot of confidence in their religious leaders to give advice about religious questions. For example, eight-in-ten evangelical Protestants (82%) voice a lot of confidence in their clergy’s advice about becoming closer to God. By comparison, about seven-in-ten Protestants in the mainline and historically black traditions say this, as do 60% of Catholics.

Evangelical Protestants also are more likely than other major U.S. Christian groups to express a lot of confidence in their religious leaders to give advice on issues such as marriage or relationships, parenting and personal finances. They also are more likely than mainline Protestants and Catholics to have a lot of trust in their clergy’s advice about anxiety or depression. Catholics are less likely than all the other major Christian groups to have a lot of confidence in their clergy to give advice on almost all of the religious and personal topics asked about in the survey.

Evangelical Protestants more confident than other groups that clergy can give good advice about religious and personal topics

Evangelicals, Republicans more likely to trust their clergy's advice on abortionEvangelical Protestants again stand out for being much more likely than other Christian groups to express a lot of confidence in their clergy to provide useful guidance to inform their opinion about abortion. Nearly six-in-ten evangelical Protestant attenders have a lot of confidence in their clergy on this issue, compared with about one-third of mainline Protestants, Protestants in the historically black tradition and Catholics who say the same.

Levels of trust in clergy to guide opinions about immigration and global climate change are more similar across religious groups, although mainline Protestants are less likely than other Protestants to have a lot of confidence in their clergy’s guidance on immigration. And while the issue of global climate change has been a recent topic of conversation in the Catholic Church, only 8% of Catholics say they have a lot of confidence in their clergy’s guidance on this issue.

Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party are about twice as likely as Democrats and Democratic leaners to say they have a lot of confidence in their clergy to help form an opinion about abortion (53% vs. 25%). However, there are no significant differences between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to levels of confidence in their clergy to provide advice about immigration or global climate change.

Eight-in-ten attenders would be very or somewhat comfortable seeking advice from clergy if they were having doubts about their religion

Attenders also were asked to evaluate how comfortable they would be going to their clergy or other religious leader for various types of information, regardless of how confident they are in the advice their clergy might provide.

Eight-in-ten congregants say they would be either “very” comfortable (45%) or “somewhat” comfortable (35%) going to their clergy for advice if they had doubts about their religion. Roughly three-quarters also say they would be very or somewhat comfortable asking for advice about marriage or relationship problems, parenting problems, or problems with drugs or alcohol. But smaller numbers would feel comfortable seeking guidance from clergy about mental health or financial problems. Indeed, fully a third say they would be “not too comfortable” or “not at all comfortable” going to their clergy to talk about anxiety or depression, and more than four-in-ten (45%) express discomfort with talking to their clergy about financial problems.

U.S. congregants more comfortable seeking advice from clergy on doubts about religion than other problems

Among the major subgroups of U.S. Christians, evangelical Protestants tend to feel more comfort going to their clergy than other groups, while Catholics express less comfort than others.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, congregants who feel they have a very or somewhat close relationship with their clergy are much more likely to say they would be comfortable going to their clergy to discuss the kinds of problems raised in the survey. For example, more than half (56%) of those who say they are close with their clergy would be very comfortable going to their clergy for advice when doubting their religion, compared with 20% of those who report that they are not close with their clergy.

About half of Christians would be very comfortable going to their clergy to talk about doubting their religion

U.S. adults who attend religious services are largely satisfied with sermons

Vast majority of attenders are at least somewhat satisfied with the sermons at their place of worshipNearly nine-in-ten U.S. adults who attend religious services a few times a year or more say they are satisfied with the content of sermons at their place of worship, with 46% saying they are very satisfied and 41% saying they are somewhat satisfied. Just 12% say they are not too or not at all satisfied with the sermons they hear.

Within religious groups, about nine-in-ten in the three major U.S. Protestant traditions say they are at least somewhat satisfied with the sermons at their congregation, including a majority of evangelical Protestants who are “very” satisfied with the sermons. Catholics are somewhat less likely to be happy with the sermons at their parishes: Roughly eight-in-ten Catholic Mass-goers say they are satisfied with the sermons, although more are “somewhat” satisfied (52%) than “very” satisfied (32%).

Most attenders satisfied with the amount of political discussion in sermonsMost church attenders also say the sermons at their place of worship strike the right balance of political discussion. About seven-in-ten (72%) say there is the right amount of discussion about politics, while 11% say there is too much political talk and 14% say there is not enough.

Majorities across Christian groups say there is about the right amount of political discussion in their sermons. In most major Christian traditions, the remainder are roughly evenly divided between those who say there is too much political discussion and those who say there is not enough. However, evangelical Protestants are an exception: They are more likely to say there is not enough talk about politics in the sermons at their church than they are to say there is too much (17% vs. 6%).

Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say that there is the right amount of political discussion in their sermons (74% and 71%, respectively). But Democrats are slightly more inclined than Republicans to say they are hearing too much discussion of politics in the sermons at their place of worship (13% vs. 8%).

Relatively few U.S. congregants say their clergy are united in one political party

More than four-in-ten attenders unsure of the political leanings of their clergyMore than four-in-ten U.S. adults who attend religious services a few times a year or more often say they are not sure about the partisan leanings of the clergy or other religious leaders at their place of worship. When those who attend religious services think they know their leaders’ party affiliation, they are slightly more likely to say their leaders are mostly Republicans than to say they are Democrats (16% vs. 11%). About one-in-four say their religious leaders are a mix of Republicans and Democrats.

About six-in-ten Catholics (59%) say they are unsure of the political affiliations of their clergy, a higher share than among any other religious group analyzed. Evangelical Protestants stand out because they are the most likely to say their religious leaders are mostly Republicans (29%). At the other end of the spectrum, nearly four-in-ten Protestants in the historically black tradition (37%) say they attend a place of worship with predominantly Democratic clergy.

Majorities of attenders generally agree with their clergy about politics and religion

Evangelicals especially likely to agree with their clergy about politicsU.S. adults who go to services a few times a year or more often generally agree with the political content they are hearing from their clergy. About six-in-ten attenders say they agree with their clergy when they talk about politics, while 28% mostly disagree.

Evangelical Protestants are more likely than people from other Christian groups to agree with their clergy when they talk about politics. Three-quarters of evangelical Protestants say this, compared with a smaller majority of Protestants in the historically black tradition (65%), about six-in-ten mainline Protestants (58%) and roughly half of Catholics (53%).

Republicans and those who lean Republican are more likely than Democrats to share political opinions with their clergy (70% vs. 56%).

When it comes to the teachings of their religion, attenders are even more likely to agree with their clergy. More than eight-in-ten attenders (85%) say they agree with their clergy about religion, while 12% disagree.

About nine-in-ten evangelical (93%) and mainline Protestants (90%) generally agree with their clergy about the teachings of their religion, compared with somewhat smaller majorities of Catholics (83%) and Protestants in the historically black tradition (81%).

Religiously affiliated adults most likely to place ‘a lot’ of trust in scripture to provide information about the teachings of their religion

The survey asked all religiously affiliated U.S. adults: If they were searching for information about the teachings of their religion, which sources of information would they trust the most? Scripture ranks at the top of the list of possibilities offered in the survey. Six-in-ten religiously affiliated Americans (61%) say they have “a lot” of confidence in what they would find in scripture to provide guidance about the teachings of their religion, and an additional 29% say they would have “some” confidence in scripture. About four-in-ten affiliated adults say they would have a lot of confidence in the clergy at their congregation to provide advice on this topic.

Just three-in-ten express a lot of confidence in the information that family members could provide about their religion’s teachings, though an additional 55% say they have “some” confidence in their family’s ability to guide them on this topic. Affiliated adults are less enthusiastic about endorsing other sources of information, such as a professor of religion, friends, a religious leader with a large national or international following, or the internet.

The patterns of trust in different sources of information are generally similar across religious groups. However, a high level of trust in scripture is particularly apparent among evangelical Protestants. About eight-in-ten evangelicals (82%) express a lot of confidence in scripture to provide guidance about religion. U.S. Jews stand out for being the only group that is more likely to say they have a lot of confidence in clergy than they do in scripture.

Eight-in-ten evangelical Protestants have a lot of confidence in scripture to answer questions about their religion's teachings

Most Catholics trust in pope's guidance on Catholic teachingsSeparately, Catholics were asked about their level of confidence in the pope to provide information about their religion’s teachings. Fully 85% of Catholics say they would have at least some confidence in information they receive from the pope about their religion, including nearly half (46%) who say they would have “a lot” of confidence in the pope to provide guidance about Catholic teachings. By this measure, U.S. Catholics have somewhat more confidence in the pope than they do in the clergy at their congregation.

Additionally, 13% of Catholics say they would have not much or no confidence in information about their religion’s teachings from the pope. Catholics who attend Mass a couple times a month or less often are somewhat more likely than weekly Mass-attenders to say they would have not much or no confidence in the pope to give information about Catholicism (15% vs. 9%).

Most congregants do not hear their clergy talk about other religious groups, but when they do, messages are mixed

The survey asked respondents whether they have heard the clergy at their place of worship speak out about different religious groups. Among adults who attend religious services at least a few times a year, about four-in-ten (43%) say they have heard their clergy speak out about atheists, while slightly fewer say their clergy have spoken out about Catholics or Jews (37% each). And roughly one-third have heard their clergy talk about evangelical Christians (33%) or Muslims (31%).8

Respondents also were asked to assess the sentiment of the comments their clergy made about other religious groups. Adults whose clergy have talked about atheists say those messages tend to be more negative (19%) than positive (2%). An additional 7% say the messages are both positive and negative, and 14% say the sentiment from clergy is neither positive nor negative. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than all other Christian groups to say their clergy have spoken out about atheists in a negative way (31%).

On the other hand, discussions of Jews and evangelical Christians among clergy are reported to be more positive than negative. One-in-five attenders say their clergy have spoken about Jews in a positive way, compared with 1% who say their clergy have said negative things about Jews. Another one-in-ten report that they have heard both positive and negative things about Jews, or that they have heard their clergy speak out about Jews in a way that wasn’t inherently either positive or negative. This general pattern holds across religious groups analyzed.

The messages that congregants say they hear from their clergy about Muslims and Catholics are more mixed.

Christian clergy's messages tend to be negative about atheists and positive about Jews, according to people in the pews

 

 

  1. Another recent Pew Research Center survey asked a number of other questions about ethics among people in positions of power and responsibility, including religious leaders. It found that about seven-in-ten Americans say religious leaders act unethically at least some of the time, and roughly half say religious leaders generally escape serious consequences when they act unethically.
  2. Results for the share of U.S. adults who attend religious services a few times a year or more often and say the clergy at their congregation have high or very high ethical standards are based on two questions. Respondents who identify as Catholic and attend Mass at least a few times a year were asked to rate the ethical standards of the priests at their parish. U.S. adults who attend religious services at least yearly but are not Catholic were asked to rate the ethical standards of the clergy at their congregation or place of worship. Figures shown here combine the results of these two questions.
  3. Results are based only on respondents who are not a member of the group in question. For example, results about Catholics do not include the views of Catholics themselves. See topline for filtering and question wording.