Economy

U.S. Clergy, Bankers See New Lows in Honesty/Ethics Ratings

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Police officers’ image recovers

PRINCETON, NJ -- The percentage of Americans rating the honesty and ethics rating of clergy as very high or high is down to 50% in 2009, the lowest percentage it has been in the 32 years Gallup has measured it.

1977-2009 Trend: Ratings of Honesty and Ethics of the Clergy

Gallup conducted its annual Honesty and Ethics of professions poll Nov. 20-22 this year, with one of the major findings the deterioration in ratings of members of Congress. Nurses continue to rate as the most highly regarded profession in terms of honesty and ethics.

"In addition to the clergy and bankers, ratings of stockbrokers have hit a new low, and ratings of business executives, members of Congress, and lawyers have tied their previous lows."

In last year's Honesty and Ethics update, 56% of Americans rated the clergy's honesty and ethics very high or high. The reason for the decline to 50% this year is unclear; but now the clergy's ratings are below where they were earlier this decade during the priest sex-abuse scandal. Ratings of the clergy dropped from their 2008 levels among both Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and non-regular churchgoers.

2008 and 2009 Ratings of Honesty and Ethics of the Clergy, by Religious Affilation

2008 and 2009 Ratings of Honesty and Ethics of the Clergy, by Church Attendance

Still, ratings of the clergy remain high on a relative basis, ranking 8th of the 22 professions tested this year. The same cannot be said of bankers, whose ratings tumbled last year from 35% to 23% in the midst of the financial crisis, and fell further this year to a new low of 19%. As recently as 2005, 41% of Americans gave bankers high honesty and ethics ratings.

1977-2009 Trend: Ratings of Honesty and Ethics of Bankers

More broadly, 2009 was not a kind year in terms of how Americans rate members of various professions. In addition to the clergy and bankers, ratings of stockbrokers have hit a new low, and ratings of business executives, members of Congress, and lawyers have tied their previous lows.

Most of the 13 professions measured in both 2008 and 2009 show a decline, and only police officers' ratings improved by a meaningful amount. Ratings of clergy declined the most -- six points -- followed by lawyers, with a five-point drop.

2008-2009 Changes in Honesty and Ethics Ratings Among 13 Professions

The 63% very high/high ratings for police officers are their best since 2001 -- shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- and the second highest in the 30+ years Gallup has asked about this profession. Over time, ratings of police officers have generally risen, though they were down below 60% the last three years.

Ratings of Honesty and Ethics of Police Officers

Until this year, Gallup had asked Americans to rate the honesty and ethics of "policemen," but this year conducted an experiment to see whether asking the gender-neutral phrasing "police officers" would produce the same results. A random half of respondents were asked to rate "policemen," and the other half "police officers," with both wordings producing similar results (62% and 64%, respectively).

Gallup also found deterioration in the honesty ratings of several other professions that were last measured in 2006. The most notable decline occurred for state governors, whose ratings are down seven points, from 22% in 2006 to the current 15%. This change could in part be attributed to recent sex scandals involving former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and current South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Changes in Honesty and Ethics Ratings of Professions Rated in 2006 and Again in 2009

The new poll also documents significant decreases in the evaluated honesty of dentists and psychiatrists since 2006. Additionally, the four-point decline in ratings of senators over this time period leaves them with a new low rating, similar to the pattern Gallup reported earlier for members of Congress.

Bottom Line

Americans' ratings of the honesty and ethics of members working in several professions have established new lows in 2009, with the ratings of clergy and bankers lower now than at any other point in the last three-plus decades. And while Americans rate most professions more poorly than in their prior measurements, certain professions such as nurses, pharmacists, doctors, police officers, and engineers have maintained a high level of confidence from the American public.

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Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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