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How religious leaders can regain trust

A new Pew Research Center survey looks at Americans’ decreasing confidence in various community leaders

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The bell tower at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska, is shown being removed Oct. 13, 2023.

The bell tower at the old St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska, is shown being removed Oct. 13, 2023.

Mark Thiessen, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Scientists are losing public trust, and they’re not the only ones.

A new Pew Research Center survey on science shows that Americans’ confidence in a number of professional groups has declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, the share of U.S. adults who expressed a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in public school principals fell from 83% in April 2020 to 65% in October 2023.

Over the same time period, confidence in scientists fell from 87% to 73% and in police officers from 78% to 69%.

Religious leaders aren’t immune from this downward trend in trust. In April 2020, 63% of U.S. adults said they had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in religious leaders. Today, that figure stands at 53%.

Pew’s survey included responses from 8,842 U.S. adults. It was fielded from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, 2023.

The confidence crisis that Pew identified holds significant consequences for individual institutions and American society as a whole. Leaders who are losing public trust can struggle to organize community events, fund-raise, disseminate important messages and perform any number of other tasks.

When people lose trust in religious leaders, interest in joining churches drops, as does overall interest in religion, according to a recent column in The New York Times focused on Gen Z.

Writer Jessica Grose noted that she spoke to a number of Americans under age 30 about their relationship with organized religion and was struck to hear the same trust issues come up again and again.

“More than one used the metaphor of a Jenga tower: When they lost faith in the religion they were raised in, it was as if load-bearing blocks were being removed and eventually the entire structure collapsed,” she wrote.

So what can religious leaders, scientists and others do to avoid outcomes like this and regain trust? A good place to start is to accept that a confidence crisis is happening and that their own actions caused it, at least in part, according to Robert Wuthnow, who published a piece called “Religion, Democracy & the Task of Restoring Trust” in 2022.

For example, churches that are failing to regain trust after a scandal need to ask themselves whether they fully understand the public’s response to their mistakes and whether they’ve put the right policies in place to prevent future issues. Too often, faith groups only make it about 75% along the path to healing, Wuthnow wrote, noting that it’s unfortunately common for faith groups to acknowledge a need to change but never really follow through with promised adjustments.

Another important way to regain trust is to refocus on your own core values and then let those values guide your actions moving forward, Wuthnow said.

“For religious leaders to restore the public’s and, indeed, their own members’ trust in the religious institutions that have served America so well in the past, they certainly do not have to all agree on the important moral and social issues of the day. But they must be attentive to the basic principles within their own traditions of how to live amicably and respectfully among those with whom they disagree,” he wrote.

Fresh off the press

Abortion concerns once delayed a major religious freedom law. Now, they’re back in the spotlight

Place of the week: Iraivan Temple

The Iraivan Temple on the Hawaiian island of Kauai likely seems like a mirage if you just stumble upon it. After all, who would expect to see a Hindu house of worship among the island’s lush trees, let alone a hand-built one made of granite and gold leaf that relies on oil lamps rather than electric lights?

The Associated Press recently visited the temple to explore how the Iraivan Temple ended up in a place with so few Hindus — locals estimate that there are fewer than 50 members of the faith group on Kauai — and how the monks who live there spend their time.

“The monks, who take vows of celibacy, nonviolence and vegetarianism, are guided and inspired by the philosophy of Shaivism. They live in huts, and begin their day with 4 a.m. worship and meditation, followed by gardening, woodworking, cooking and other tasks. They do not speak about their prior lives,” The Associated Press reported.

The monks also prioritize building relationships with other faith groups and offering support when they can.

“Following the deadly Maui wildfires in August ... the temple helped connect Hindu donors to local groups leading recovery efforts,” the article said.

What I’m reading ...

Author Anne Lamott recently wrote a column for The Washington Post about the power of accepting that some things are unknowable, that no matter how hard you think about them, you won’t be able to predict how they’ll turn out. “The portals of age also lead to the profound (indeed earthshaking) understanding that people are going to do what people are going to do: They do not want my always-good ideas on how to have easier lives and possibly become slightly less annoying,” she explained.

Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s are embracing new technology, like TikTok, in order to help members of younger generations understand the horrors of what they experienced, according to Business Insider.

My colleague, Sam Benson, recently had a chance to speak with two of Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s key faith advisers in Iowa. One is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the other is a former member who now identifies as evangelical Christian. Both are helping Ramaswamy discuss his Hindu religion in a way that appeals to conservative Christian voters, Sam writes.

Odds and ends

Earlier this year, The New York Times released a game called Flashback, which asks players to put eight events in chronological order. I’ve never considered myself much of a history buff, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the game a bit easier than I expected and a lot more interesting. Here’s the link to the latest quiz.