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Why Many Religious Folks Don’t Trust Their Leaders

A new poll out from Pew Research shows that only 17 percent of religiously affiliated Americans have “a great deal of confidence in religious leaders to act in the best interests of the public.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if only 17 percent of all Americans viewed religious leaders that way, but to see that even religiously affiliated Americans have such a low opinion of their religious leaders is a bit of an eye-opener for me.

There are really only two alternatives to explain the results of this polling.

The first alternative is that kingdom priorities – the ones that religious leaders are supposed to be championing – really are in conflict with what religiously affiliated Americans would consider to be “the best interests of the public.”

The second alternative is that religious leaders are seen to be championing priorities other than kingdom priorities, and religiously affiliated Americans see those priorities as being in conflict with the best interests of the public.

In the first alternative, religiously affiliated Americans might hear their religious leaders championing the following kingdom priorities and question whether they serve the public interest:

  • Better treatment for the poor
  • More compassion toward the sick
  • Increased efforts to feed the hungry
  • A special concern for vulnerable children
  • Hospitality for immigrants and refugees
  • Love of neighbor
  • An impulse toward forgiveness and reconciliation
  • A bias toward the meek and the poor in spirit
  • Admonitions against worry and fear and judgmentalism
  • Cautions about being overly consumed by a drive to accumulate wealth and material things
  • The benefits of placing God’s kingdom first

Maybe this poll indicates that religiously affiliated Americans hear us advocate for these priorities and say, “That’s nice, but it’s not really aligned with the public interest.” But I pray that’s not true.

Here’s the other, more likely, alternative: People see religious leaders seeking personal power, influence and profit. They see religious leaders building kingdoms of their own – church empires, universities or online armies of Facebook followers.

Maybe religiously affiliated Americans see religious leaders responding to the events of the world with outrage and condemnation and wonder if that’s in the public interest.

Or they see us wagging angry, accusatory fingers and object to our behavior. Or they see us making fear-based appeals on behalf of political candidates or parties and question our motivations.

They hear us say things like:

  • “You can’t support this candidate (or that candidate) and be a faithful Christian.”
  • “If this candidate wins, the religious liberty as we know it will be destroyed.”
  • “If that candidate wins, democracy as we know it will cease to exist.”

Maybe it’s when they see us direct angry and fearful language toward Muslims and immigrants and gay people that they start to question whether we’re acting in the best interests of the public.

Or maybe they see us consistently engaging the issues of the day in ways that make people who are different than we are feel less than equal and less than loved, and they wonder how that kind of leadership serves to move us forward as a people.

Perhaps it’s when people see religious leaders behaving in these ways that they say, “That doesn’t serve the public interest very well.”

I think that’s the more likely alternative. At least I hope it is. And as a religious leader, I take this lesson to heart.

But I also wonder if there’s something in this for all of us.

I wonder if the people who know you – your friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers – think your religious values are aligned with the public interest.

There are, of course, legitimate areas where our interests as Christians and our interests as Americans diverge. Issues of war and peace come to mind – an appropriate response to ISIS, for example.

But I don’t think that’s what this poll is getting at. Mostly, I think, people in this poll are responding to the growing perception that most of us mix too many other allegiances with our ultimate allegiance to Christ.

Election seasons, of course, are especially bad for this kind of behavior. And social media, I fear, has increasingly encouraged us toward divisive and unhelpful rhetoric – both online and in person – that does little to serve either kingdom priorities or the public interest.

So what do people see in you? Which version of faith expression best describes your conversations across the dinner table or in the grocery store aisle or on Facebook?

Most of us, myself included, tend to parrot what we’ve heard and seen in other places. Very little of what we share with others is original to ourselves.

So who are you parroting – Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount or something you saw online or on TV?

I know whose kingdom Jesus is building, and I’m convinced its ultimate priority is to serve the public interest.

The others we listen to – even some who honestly think they’re speaking for God – I think they may be aiming for something different.

So test their words, attitudes, actions and motivations against Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and be careful who you parrot.

If this new Pew Research poll teaches anything, it’s that people are watching and making judgments about you and the kingdom you claim to represent as a Christian.

The polls are in. And they don’t look good. We have work to do.

Matt Sapp is the pastor of Heritage Fellowship in Canton, Georgia. A version of this article first appeared on Heritage’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @MattPSapp.