In the not-so distant past, institutions were trusted and valued as important parts of a functioning society—from government, corporations and schools to marriage and even organized religion. Yet trust in institutions is quickly giving way to a nation of cynics. New Barna research reports that Americans are ranking their confidence in institutions at abysmal levels. And this institutional skepticism comprises a significant backdrop for the major faith and culture trends of 2014.
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This cultural attitude of institutional distrust has not arisen out of nowhere, of course. Public mistrust—generated by a spectrum of events from Watergate to the financial crisis—has been mounting for decades. During 2013 alone, citizens lamented the failure of their leaders and institutions. From the government shutdown to Pope Francis’ public callout of the Vatican bank to the whistleblowing of the NSA to the problematic rollout of Obamacare, Americans were reminded again and again that institutions apparently have a habit of breaking promises. The Associated Press even went so far as to call 2013 “The Year of Dysfunction, Discord and Distrust.”
Still, while tens of millions of adults are questioning the value of institutions, there is also a growing countertrend revealed in new Barna data: increasing resolve among many Americans to advocate for these institutions. This erosion of public trust—as well as the countertrend of supporters of those institutions—underscores three of the major trends that Barna Group has included in the newly released Barna FRAMES project.
1) The role of “church” generates both more skeptics and stronger apologists.
When it comes to the value of a local church, Americans are now essentially lumped into three groups: those who say it is necessary to attend church, those who say it is not, and those who are on the fence about the value of local church participation. What’s surprising is that these three groups roughly divide the country’s adult population in thirds, leading to a tremendous tug-of-war between pro-church and naysayers.
The rising resistance to faith institutions is evidenced in the newer language used to discuss spirituality today. When it comes to matters of the soul, disclaimers are emerging as the new faith identifiers. Today, there are those who self-describe as “spiritual, but not religious”—individuals who like to associate with what they perceive as the positive elements of spirituality but not the negative associations of organized religion. Or consider the rise of the “Nones”—the much-discussed adults who are religiously unaffiliated and who don’t want to use any conventional label for their religious faith. And in many places, the prefix “post-” is being attached to matters of faith. Post-Christian. Post-denominational. Post-evangelical. Post-religious.
So what does all of this mean for church leaders? New Barna research highlights a renewed urgency for spiritual substance—not the worship style, the dress code, or the programs, but the substance of what it means to participate in church. The research shows the top reason people (39%) choose a church is for its teaching. On the opposite end, it’s also the top reason they’d leave a church—63% say they would leave if they disagree with the teachings.
Today’s widespread institutional distrust may also be seen in the fact that while three-quarters of all adults are looking for ways to live a more meaningful life, 40% of unchurched adults say they do not attend because they “find God elsewhere.” This signals that while the search for meaning and spirituality remains strong, so does the skepticism of the church as an infrastructure.
2) Americans wrestle with a culture of violence.
The nation’s institutional distrust is furthered by the fact that when it comes to violence, institutions sworn to protect citizens often seem powerless to prevent violent outbreaks. The Boston bombing, the Newtown school shootings and other horrific displays of violence showed how powerless our society can sometimes be to stop violence.
For example, new Barna research found adults name bullying at school (36%) as their top concern on issues of violence today. What is perhaps doubly alarming about such bullying is that it is happening on school grounds—within the halls of what is supposed to be a safe environment. Gang violence (34%) and domestic violence (33%) are also cited as primary concerns. Additionally, support of institutionally sanctioned violence is hitting a significant low. Only about one-quarter (26%) of all adults agree with the statement, “I have a patriotic duty to support the wars my country fights.”
On a personal level, many Americans—though certainly not all—admit that they are wrestling with how to navigate a culture increasingly comfortable with violence. Nearly half of adults (47%) say they are less comfortable with violence than 10 years ago. This number is even more pronounced among practicing Christians (59%).
This level of concern hits close to home for the millions of parents who are struggling to justify their family’s exposure to and fascination with depictions of violence in video games, movies and music. In fact, the research shows that Americans believe there is connection between violent behavior and playing violent video games (57%), watching violent movies (51%) and listening to music with violent lyrics (47%).
3) Trust in the public school system is failing.
A third trend for 2014 illustrating institutional distrust hits at the heart of the nation’s future: its children. Every fall, a majority of parents entrust their child’s future anew to the public school systems—but Barna’s research shows more and more are feeling conflicted about this course of action for their child.
Barna’s study highlights two major perceptions when it comes to America’s public schools—both negative. First, nearly half of adults (46%) believe public schools have only gotten worse in the past five years. And while more than eight out of 10 adults with school-aged children send their kids to public school, only 26% of those parents say public school is their first choice.
And yet, there is also a positive perception reflecting the countertrend: 66% of all Americans believe “churches and faith-based groups should be given more opportunities to support local schools.” What’s more, pastors are in nearly unanimous agreement—95% believe Christians should get involved in helping public schools and 85% of practicing Christians agree with them.
The specifics, of course, of how to help vary. Yet only 16% of churchgoing Christians believe “more prayer and religious values” in school is enough of a solution. Far more see encouraging teachers (36%), supporting alternative education options (25%) and volunteering at local schools (24%) as more viable means of academic reform.
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About the Research
The research included in this report is part of Barna Group’s FRAMES project. This project included four separate nationwide studies, conducted between May and August 2013. These nationwide public opinion studies were conducted using a mix of telephone (including cell phones) and online interviewing among 4,495 adults. The maximum sampling error for any of the four studies is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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