We are living in an era of unprecedented doubt. While belief in God remains high, public confidence in religious institutions is at its lowest since routine polling on the question began. In 1975, Gallup found that nearly 70% of Americans expressed either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in organized religion. By last year, that figure stood at just 42%. Regular church attendance is also near a modern nadir. Even before COVID-19, the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who report attending a religious service at least once a month fell over the past decade from 52% to about 42%.

Of course, not everything is trending downward. For example, the percentage of highly religious Americans, according to a 2017 study from sociologists at Harvard and Indiana University, has remained relatively constant. And the most religious in America appear to be engaging in their faith with continued intensity. Speaking to The Washington Post, one of the researchers compared this phenomenon to a “container getting smaller, but more concentrated.”

So what is happening with religion in America?

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The answer, at least in part, may have to do with how different faith communities have reacted to this crisis of trust in organized religion. Some leaders and institutions have responded by making their religious orders less demanding and therefore (they hope) more appealing. By emphasizing broad commitments to justice and deemphasizing specific strictures on personal behavior, they hope to draw more people to church, and ultimately into faith. On some level, this seems intuitive. Softer pews might make people more comfortable in the congregation.

The logic of such a response is not hard to understand. The demands of traditional religion seem at odds with the spirit of the age. Potential parishioners, particularly younger ones, are opting for a culture of choice and expression over one of faith and obedience. So, the thinking goes, closing the distance between the two can draw them in.

The broken state of our society seems to lend support to that logic.

Our crisis of isolation, division and cultural conflict is in many respects a crisis of meaning. That loss may be the result of a religious hunger left unsated by a society without a traditional vocabulary of sin or redemption. The very forms of our conflicts over race, sexuality and the meaning of our history are an indication of such hunger — we need only witness the accusations of wickedness, calls for redemptive deliverance, persecutions of heretics and demands for purification.

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The “great awokening” sweeping some of our elite institutions hints at an opening. Showing younger Americans that our country’s religious traditions stand for social justice, too, as they surely do, might help clear the path to such an awakening.

But this logic mistakes the character of the crisis American religion now confronts. It is not exactly a crisis of belief in the teachings of traditional religion, but rather a crisis of confidence in the institutions that claim to embody them. In other words, Americans aren’t losing their faith in God. Eighty-seven percent of the public expressed belief in God last year in Gallup’s figures, which is roughly the level pollsters have found for many decades. What Americans do have trouble believing, however, is that our institutions — our churches, seminaries, religious schools and charities — remain capable of forming trustworthy people who actually exhibit the integrity they preach.

To overcome such doubts, and to appeal to persuadable younger Americans, our religious institutions need to show not that they are continuous with the larger culture but that they are capable of addressing its deficiencies — that they can speak with legitimate authority and be counted on to do the work of molding souls and shaping character. The problem, in other words, may be that our pews have grown too soft, not too hard.


To grasp the nature of this problem, it is useful to see the decline of trust in organized religion in the context of a larger collapse of confidence in our society’s core institutions. Here, too, the numbers are stark.

Gallup has kept track of Americans’ confidence in various institutions for decades — in most cases from 1973 until today. The trend is unmistakable. From “big business,” the branches of the federal government, the news media and even the medical system, confidence in our institutions has fallen. There have been modest moments of recovery, but in most cases, the decline through the 1970s and ’80s was gradual at first, growing a little steeper in the 1990s and accelerating further in the past two decades. 

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In the mid-1970s, 80% of Americans told Gallup they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the medical system, for instance. In 2020, the figure was nearly 30 percentage points lower. Sixty two percent, meanwhile, expressed confidence in public schools back then — last year, it was 41%. Even those figures, however, are likely higher than normal as Americans have rallied around beleaguered health care workers and teachers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, for example, the same confidence figures for public schools and the medical system were at 29% and 36%, respectively. 

In 1975, a year after Richard Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, 52% of Americans expressed confidence in the presidency — in 2020, only 39% of Americans did. This pattern holds for nearly all the institutions Gallup has asked about. Just one institution — the military — is significantly more trusted today than in the 1970s (claiming the confidence of 72% of the public in 2020, compared to 58% in 1975). The American people have gone from extraordinary levels of confidence in our major institutions to striking levels of mistrust.

Part of the reason for this pattern is surely that Americans’ faith in institutions was unusually high in the middle part of the 20th century. Emerging from decades of social, cultural and political consolidation and the searing experiences of depression and war, Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s had extraordinary confidence in the large institutions that dominated the life of the nation, and some of the subsequent decline in trust was a kind of normalization. But that doesn’t explain the increasing intensity of that decline, or its acceleration in this century. Something more has been happening.

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If we were to look at one institution or another on its own, it might be easy to come up with plausible explanations. Some specific scandal, failure or controversy could probably help justify each case, including those of some of our religious institutions. But to see that nearly all American institutions have been losing the public’s trust at the same time is to recognize that deeper forces are at play, and that what has been happening might be best understood as a shift in how we think about institutions more generally.

Institutions are perhaps best understood as the durable forms of our common life: They are the shapes and structures of what we do together. Each involves a group of people organized around a common aim and taking action together toward achieving it in ways that give each person a role in relation to others.

Each core institution of our society thus performs an important task — educating children, enforcing the law, serving the poor, providing some service, meeting some need. And it does that by establishing a structure and process, a form, for combining efforts toward accomplishing that task. But as it does so, each institution also forms the people within it to carry out that task. It shapes behavior and character. That’s why we trust the institution and the people who compose it.

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We trust political institutions when they undertake a solemn obligation to the public interest and shape the people who populate them to do the same. We trust a business because it promises quality and reliability and rewards its workers when they deliver those. We trust the military because it values courage, honor and duty in carrying out the defense of the nation and forms human beings who do, too.

We lose faith in an institution when we no longer believe it plays this ethical or formative role of teaching the people within it to be trustworthy. This can happen through simple corruption, when an institution’s attempts to be formative fail to overcome the vices of the people within it, and it instead masks their treachery — as when a bank cheats its customers, or a member of the clergy abuses a child.

That kind of abuse of power obviously undermines trust in institutions. It is common in our time as in every time. But for that very reason, it doesn’t really explain the exceptional collapse of trust in American institutions in recent decades.

What stands out about our era is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be formed by institutions acting like the institutions are simply podiums from which to preach. Many members of Congress, for example, now use their positions not to advance legislation but to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

What stands out about our era is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people.

The same pattern is rampant in the elite professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why reporters should be trusted. Public health experts who put political expression above professional rigor in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic (for instance telling the public that protests for racial justice are safe but funerals for beloved family members are not) have similarly undermined the public’s trust in their profession. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

The few exceptions to the pattern of declining confidence in institutions tend to prove this rule. The military is the most conspicuous exception and also the most unabashedly formative of our national institutions — molding men and women who clearly take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously.

But our religious institutions have too rarely been exceptions. In many prominent establishments of American religion today, we find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls used instead as stages for political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet. This has made religious institutions harder to trust, and it has also made it more difficult for them to effectively perform their crucial educational, civic, social and charitable functions. But most important, it has made it difficult for them to speak with authority about the truth.


Our religious institutions are most important not for reasons of civic utility, such as running soup kitchens or cleaning up after natural disasters. No, their highest function is offering us access to the fullest truth about our world. The great variety of religious convictions in our diverse society means that our ecosystem of sects and churches is variegated, too. For its believers, though, each faith serves the highest purpose. To find the worldly forms of our faiths sheared by the same hurricane winds that have done so much harm to our secular institutions is therefore to appreciate the depth of the problem we face.

But it is also to perceive the possibility of real solutions. If the widespread loss of confidence in our institutions is a function of their loss of focus and purpose — of their becoming mere platforms for performance — then a recovery of that trust would have to begin with a recovery of institutional purpose and commitment.

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All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean, in part, letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.

As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a congregant, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”

The people we most respect these days seem to ask that kind of question before they make important judgments. And the people who drive us crazy, who we think are part of the problem, are often those who clearly fail to ask it when they should.

Asking such questions of ourselves would be a first step toward grasping our responsibilities, recovering the great diversity of interlocking purposes that our institutions ought to serve, and constraining elites and people in power so that the larger society can better trust them. It would not be a substitute for institutional reforms but a prerequisite for them. And asking such questions is one thing we all can do to take on the complicated social crisis we are living through and begin to rebuild the bonds of trust essential for a free society.

This is why religious institutions are especially crucial to addressing the problems we face. A recovery of institutional responsibility throughout our society would need to involve a kind of devotion, even submission, to institutional formation. And this broader shift is most likely to emerge among those who experience religious formation. A recovery of community begins with modeling the kind of community life shared by those with common religious convictions.

Such communities offer a way out of the endless combat of our culture war. The fact is that an attractive community, which provides a venue for genuine flourishing, can change minds far better than an argument can. A way of life can be persuasive, even when we seem unable to persuade each other of much. But such community life requires healthy institutions that attract our loyalty and devotion, and can make real demands on us.

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This is the ironic truth at the heart of America’s social crisis: We have become disillusioned and alienated from our institutions not because they are too demanding but because they are not demanding enough. We want to be called to acts of devotion, not just affirmed in acts of expression.

Our religious institutions are best positioned to make such demands, since they speak for a truth that stands outside the expressive individualism that has come to dominate our culture. Yet it is precisely for their capacity to build morally cohesive and formative communities that our religious institutions have become increasingly controversial in contemporary America. The question at the heart of some of our most divisive cultural conflicts has been whether institutions that embody the religious convictions of their members, leaders or owners will be permitted to embody those convictions when they are not shared by our society’s cultural elites. Whether it’s a Latter-day Saint college, a Lutheran hospital, a Catholic adoption agency, a Jewish social service organization, an evangelical-owned business or countless other institutions moved by a religious mission, the all-pervasive culture war now threatens the integrity of these essential forms of association, just when that integrity is most badly needed.

It should not surprise religious traditionalists that efforts to embody their beliefs in communal practices and institutional forms would be controversial in our time. But they should not take that fact as a reason to back down, or to soften the demands of their faith. Yes, those demands are why certain acolytes of self-expression find religion so threatening, but they are also why many yearning for meaning might actually come to find faith appealing again.

We want to be called to acts of devotion, not just affirmed in acts of expression.

Observers of modern democracy since Alexis de Tocqueville have noted that in free societies it is precisely the moral and religious institutions that hold firm to orthodoxy, and not those that seek modernization and accommodation, which have proven most attractive — thanks in no small part to their countercultural character. In our time, no less than any other, traditionalists should live out their faiths and their ways in the world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better and that people will be drawn to the spark. In an era of declining confidence in mass institutions, we are more than ever in need of institutions of interpersonal moral formation.

Both the libertarian and the progressive ideals of freedom assume a human person already fully formed, requiring only liberation from oppression of various sorts to be free. But our traditions have always opposed this vision with a more skeptical view, which assumes that the human person is imperfect and unformed — perhaps even fallen. This other ideal comes loaded with low expectations of the individual, but it therefore demands a lot of our institutions. It assumes that each of us is born deficient but capable of moral improvement which happens soul by soul guided by pro-social communities. This process cannot be entirely circumvented by social or political transformation.

Building individual character and virtue, then, is the foremost work of every generation. To fail to engage in it is to regress to barbarism. And to engage in it is our highest purpose. In different terms, by different means, this is what all of our traditional religions teach. It is by advancing this idea that we can best meet the rising generation’s hunger for meaning and truth. But a recovery of trust in our religious institutions first requires a recovery of confidence on their part as well. Put a different way, our ability to pass along the teachings of the great faith traditions to another generation, and to sustain the preconditions for a free society, demands the kind of pews that help us sit upright.

Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs, direct of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and a contributing editor at National Review.

Note: Portions of this essay were adapted from Yuval Levin’s book, “A Time to Build.”

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.