Power and the Churches

In the 2009 International Social Science Program (ISSP) survey just released, 42 per cent of Australian respondents indicated that churches and religious organisations had ‘about the right amount of power’ and 37 per cent indicated they had ‘too much power’ or ‘far too much power’. In addition, 78 per cent ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that religious leaders should not influence how people voted, and 71 per cent that religious leaders should not influence government. What implications does this have for Christianity’s underlying principles of social justice? Do these figures suggest that churches and religious organisations the Australian public wants the churches to remain silent on issues?

The ISSP (2009) survey asked about people’s confidence in a range of institutions. The institutions in which Australians had the highest levels of confidence in 2009 were the defence forces (59%) and state/territory police (45%). Not far behind was the Australian Broadcasting Commission (42%). Much further down were churches and religious institutions (21%), although not as far down as the public service (16%) or the banks and financial institutions (14%). Towards the bottom were the unions (11%). Business and industry scored a little lower than churches (18%), as also did the Federal government (14%).

At the heart of the levels of confidence is whether people feel that the organisations are really there to serve the public or are serving their own interests as organisations, or simply making profits for their shareholders or stakeholders.

Generally, trust in religious institutions is extremely low in most European Union countries. However, data collected by Gallup for the European Commission in 2004 shows that, even in countries where populations express high levels of trust in religious institutions, trust does not always translate into regular church attendance.

When we look at differences between Christian denominations, we find that, generally, the more hierarchical the church, the less confidence it inspires in those who identify with that denomination (but who do not necessarily participate in church life). However, church attendance is positively related to confidence. Most people do not associate with an institution that does not have their trust.

Different groups of people feel differently about churches. Many single and divorced people and people with homosexual preferences experience some churches as not providing a place for them. Their confidence in the churches, then, is likely to be low. Lack of confidence is often transferred from one church to churches in general, despite the fact that churches have very different policies and principles.

The task of institutions, including the churches, regaining the public’s confidence is a complex one. Gaining the confidence of people requires reconnecting with them and their everyday concerns. It requires building trust through different sorts of networks and in ways different from those traditionally associated with institutions.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 2, Pages 10-13

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