Restoring Trust in Religion

By Peter Steinfels
New York Times
January 18, 2003

hen more than 2,100 people — business executives, government officials, social activists, academics, religious leaders and others — gather at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, next week, the decline of trust will be a major theme.

The decline of trust will also be a fact on the ground, as the phrase goes — and in the air. The meeting will be guarded by thousands of soldiers and private security agents. Cars and trains will be stopped and checked for potential troublemakers. Over the Swiss village and ski resort, army helicopters will be patrolling a no-flight zone, where the military is prepared to shoot down unauthorized aircraft not responding to warnings.

As part of the meeting's umbrella theme of "building trust," a panel on "restoring trust in religion" will examine the effect of religion's use for political purposes and recent scandals involving religious leaders.

The panelists will include the Most Rev. George Carey, formerly archbishop of Canterbury; Karen Armstrong, author of books on Islam and other world religions; Zaki Badawi, president of the Muslim College in London; and Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan and the founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith organization promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Douglas Miller, the president of Environics International, a Canadian concern coordinating public opinion surveys for the World Economic Forum, said that in recent years, trust in religious institutions and religious and spiritual leaders had declined "by statistically significant margins" in more than two of every three nations surveyed.

These include predominantly Muslim nations like Indonesia, predominantly Christian ones like Argentina, nations split between faiths like Nigeria and South Korea, and less religious countries like Canada. Only in Turkey did pollsters find that trust in religion had actually increased.

The decline has been especially steep in the United States — largely, it seems, because of the sex scandals of the Roman Catholic Church. According to a Gallup poll released last June, those Americans who still express "a great deal" of confidence in religious institutions has dropped to 45 percent, a 30-year low, from 60 percent in 2001.

On the other hand, religious institutions and spiritual leaders have not done badly compared with many other institutions, in which trust "has fallen to critical proportions," according to the World Economic Forum's analysis of its surveys.

The most disturbing findings of the organization's polling in 47 countries on six continents are the low levels of trust in parliaments or other legislative bodies that claim to be democratic.

That may be easily understood in Latin American or Middle Eastern nations where such assemblies have been more of a democratic facade than a deeply implanted reality. But even in North American and European Union nations, fewer than a majority of respondents expressed "some" or "a lot" of trust that their elected legislatures were operating in society's best interests.

Asked whether their country was "governed by the will of the people," two-thirds of the 36,000-person sample surveyed worldwide said no. In only 4 of the 47 countries did a majority say yes.

The institution generally enjoying the most trust? The armed forces. The next three most trusted institutions were nongovernmental organizations like human rights, environmental and other social advocacy groups; the educational systems; and the United Nations.

Religious institutions came next, ranked fifth among 17 major institutions. The news media and labor unions were 10th and 11th. Large national and multinational companies and the International Monetary Fund stood just above elected legislatures at the very bottom of the ranking.

Another poll, conducted for the World Economic Forum in 15 countries, showed that most leaders garnered even less trust than the institutions they lead.

Religion's record in building trust is obviously mixed. Historically, trust in one's own faith was correlated with distrust of others. Then, too, religion has often warned against placing trust in anything earthly. "Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal," warns Psalm 146. A familiar, homelier sentiment goes: "In God we trust. All others pay cash."

Rabbi Schneier counters with the point that Judaism includes a prayer for civic authorities in its worship, as do many other faiths. He is heading to Davos with the message that trust in all religious institutions and leaders is inextricably tied to their commitment to pluralism.

Religion has, of course, always had a lot to say about trustworthiness, how to define it, how to foster it and, for that matter, how to destroy it. Will there really be a chance for much of that to be said in Davos, however?

Rabbi Schneier maintains that the attention given religion at the World Economic Forum is growing significantly. Still, type in "religion" in the search menu that the forum provides for finding sessions related to a specific topic, and four are listed — among well over 200 sessions at the meeting. Type in "security," and 19 sessions pop up. For "technology," the number is 17.

The forum's Web site also indicates that 37 of the 2,150-plus participants will be religious leaders, compared with 239 "public figures," 172 "academic experts" and 264 "press and media representatives."

Oddly enough, the greatest obstacle for religious leaders at a meeting like this may not be that no one wants to hear a sermon but that so many others want to give one. If reports from last year's meeting are accurate, not only religious leaders but also politicians and entertainers were far readier with sermons than with convincing arguments.

With everything on the agenda in Davos, from war in the Middle East to the rising opposition to globalization, religion's contribution to building trust may require a few strong arguments.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.