- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Americans' confidence in religious institutions is at a 30-year low, tumbling to just 45 percent, according to an annual Gallup Poll.

But while the Protestant confidence rate of 59 percent is about the same as a year ago, Catholic trust plummeted to 42 percent.

The last time religion's public image suffered such a free-fall was 1989, when the televangelist scandals regarding sex and money pushed down American confidence in religion to 52 percent.

The implications for this year's elections are clearly more tied to Roman Catholic issues, said James Guth, professor of political science at Furman University.

"This may have an impact on the success of the pro-life groups versus the pro-choice groups," Mr. Guth said. "The televangelist scandals hurt Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential candidacy and the fortunes of the religious conservatives."

The televangelists were Protestant evangelicals, who make up most of the conservative religious movement in politics.

For this year's Gallup survey on 16 kinds of institutions, religion ranked sixth. First was the U.S. military, for which 79 percent of respondents had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence.

Between 1973 and the mid-1980s, organized religion ranked the highest of all institutions in confidence ratings as the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War wound down and the Reagan era began.

Mary L. Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University said the poll reflects the mood just after the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas, an event surrounded by days of media coverage on the sex-abuse scandal.

"There's been an awful lot of media about the bishops," she said.

Polling in general shows that Americans can be skeptical about national institutions but appreciate their local churches. Ms. Gautier said the same goes for Catholics who are polled about their church.

"They will tell us, 'I have no confidence in the church as a whole, but my bishop is OK,'" she said.

The Gallup poll, which interviewed 1,020 U.S. adults, was conducted in June and has a three-point margin of error.

Ahead of religion on the confidence scale were the police (59 percent), the president (58 percent), the Supreme Court (50 percent) and banks (47 percent).

For organized religion, 26 percent of respondents had a "great deal" of confidence and 19 percent had "quite a lot" of confidence. A third had "some" confidence. Finally, 18 percent had "very little" and 3 percent had "none." Two percent had no opinion.

Although this year's poll broke down respondents into Protestant and Catholic for comparison, it usually does not make that distinction. The Gallup confidence poll in 1991, however, found that Catholics and Protestants were virtually the same in how they ranked religion.

Trailing religion on the confidence scale were the medical system (38 percent), public schools (38 percent), television news (35 percent), newspapers (35 percent) and Congress (29 percent).

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