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America has a crisis of trust and it’s more nuanced than you may think

New Pew survey reveals Americans hold complex and at-times contradictory views on police officers, politicians, members of the clergy and other community leaders.

Salt Lake City police officers recognize officers and civilians at an awards luncheon at the State Fair park in the Grand building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — American leaders are facing a crisis of trust, and no one-size-fits-all approach is going to solve it, according to a new Pew Research Center survey on ethics and leadership.

Lack of faith in people in power stems from a variety of context-specific factors, rather than a general sense of pessimism, the survey showed. Americans hold complex and at-times contradictory views on police officers, politicians, members of the clergy and other community leaders.

“So much trust research focuses on big, broad sweeping judgments ... but there are really interesting stories just below the surface,” said Lee Rainie, who directs internet and technology research for Pew. “People offer nuanced, discerning judgments about various aspects of important (leadership) groups.”

For example, although more than 6 in 10 Americans believe leaders of technology companies provide accurate information to the public and handle resources responsibly at least some of the time, fewer than half of U.S. adults think they care about others.

More than three-quarters of adults say religious leaders “do a good job providing for the spiritual needs of their communities” at least some of time, but only half believe they admit and take responsibility for their mistakes just as often, Pew reported.

Christian religious leaders and others gather for prayer in the Capitol Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, June 15, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr., for the Deseret News

By highlighting nuances like these, Pew was able to show the distinct image problems facing eight types of leaders. They were also able to help explain why Americans aren’t “rioting in the streets” despite widespread concerns about people in charge, Rainie said.

“People don’t think the best about technology leaders or religious leaders or the police, but they are still affirming about some elements of their job performance. Not every encounter with leaders is colored by poisonous distrust,” he said.

However, it’s still fair to say that the survey’s findings, which are based on responses from more than 10,600 U.S. adults, should trouble community leaders, Rainie added.

No group of leaders included in the survey — namely, members of Congress, journalists, leaders of technology companies, religious leaders, police officers, military leaders, local elected officials and K-12 public school principals — scored high marks across the board.

More than half of U.S. adults believe members of each of these leadership groups act unethically at least some of the time, and few think they face consequences for mistakes.

“If I were part of any of these institutions, these findings would be troubling and worrisome at least to some degree,” he said.

Beyond teasing out distinct sources of distrust, researchers highlighted how people’s race or ethnicity and political views affect their views on various leadership groups.

For example, the survey showed that non-white Americans are much more critical of police offers than white adults.

“Roughly 7 in 10 white Americans (72%) say police officers treat racial and ethnic groups equally at least some of the time,” Pew reported. “Half of Hispanics and just 33% of black adults say the same.”

Additionally, the research exposed notable differences in the how Republicans and Democrats view religious leaders.

Three-quarters of Republicans and people who lean Republican believe faith leaders provide fair and accurate information to the public at least some of the time, compared to 54% of Democrats. There was a partisan gap of at least nine percentage points on each of the questions Pew asked about religious leaders and trust.

These results can be explained, at least in part, by the religious makeup of each political party. Nearly 3 in 10 registered Democrats are religious “nones,” compared to just 12% of the Republican Party, according to an earlier Pew survey.

“Across all five measures queried in the survey, religiously affiliated adults are more likely than religiously unaffiliated adults to say religious leaders perform key parts of their jobs at least some of the time,” the survey showed.

There was no partisan gap in feelings about members of Congress, who fared worse than any other group of leaders included in the survey.

“At a time when partisan divisions are deeper than ever, Republicans and Democrats are united in their negative views of members of Congress,” researchers said.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democratic Caucus hold an event on the House steps to highlight their agenda since taking the majority in the 2018 election, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 25, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Earlier this year, the Deseret News hosted an event on the importance of integrity in Washington, D.C., which addressed persistent distrust of elected officials. Speakers, including Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and famed reporter Bob Woodward, talked about how important it is for politicians to feel accountable to the people they serve.

“We’ve got to feel accountability always, at least to God, if nowhere else,” said Elder Christofferson during the event.

Nearly half of Americans overall say members of Congress care about the people they represent “none of the time” or “only a little of the time.” They hold more positive views of local elected officials.

These findings add to Pew’s growing body of research about trust, leadership and democracy, deepening researchers’ understanding of the many factors affecting Americans’ relationship to people in charge, Rainie said. He celebrated the chance to see the widespread loss of faith in leaders in a new light.

“This is the first time we’ve ever asked questions like this,” he said.