The four-bar graph of the CBS/YouGov poll results, which made the rounds on social media this week, was undoubtedly crafted to go viral, and go viral it did.
The chart showed that Republican primary voters who plan to back former president Donald Trump in 2024 find him to be the most trustworthy—ahead of conservative media figures, religious leaders, and even their own families and friends. Fully seven in ten said they feel that what Trump tells them is true, but only four in ten felt religious leaders merit the same trust.
Zoom in on white evangelicals who support Trump, and the numbers are even more dramatic. These figures weren’t included in the main CBS report, but Kabir Khanna, deputy director of elections and data analytics at CBS, posted them on his own account.
Here, the percent who trust religious leaders moved up a bit, to 50 percent. But the percent trusting Trump moved up by a larger margin to 81 percent, the same number as the widely cited (if not wholly accurate) count of white evangelical votes for Trump in 2016.
This is not great poll data, as I’ll explain in a moment. And as journalist Josh Barro observed, there’s “a bit of drawing the bullseyes around the gunshots here—the finding is that people who trust Trump trust Trump.” But there is some substance in this graph. It’s another chapter in the story of an American crisis of church authority, and that’s a tale which predates Donald Trump and will require our attention long after he leaves the political scene.
There are several problems with the data, and if you miss these details, it’s easy to overstate what this survey revealed. One problem is the phrasing: Who, exactly, is a “religious leader”?
Is it your pastor? The pope? A local rabbi or imam? A social media influencer with vaguely spiritual vibes? The survey doesn’t say, which leaves it to respondents to decide and answer accordingly. You can see the issue: Trump is a single person with a huge record of public statements, but “religious leaders” contains multitudes. If I were asked this question, I have no idea how I’d reply.
Two other problems worth mentioning are sample size and the definition of a “white evangelical.” We don’t know how many 2024 Trump voters or white evangelicals were polled, because those demographic breakdowns aren’t included in the main survey report. We do know, however, that the samples were fairly small, because the margin of error in the viral graphic is bigger (7.2 percent—very high for a national poll) than the survey’s overall margin of error (a more typical 3 percent). The margin for white evangelicals is probably around 7 percent too.
We also don’t know who counted as a “white evangelical” here. Often that’s measured via self-identification, but as CT’s Kate Shellnutt has reported, drawing on data from Pew Research Center, the term “evangelical” increasingly functions as a political label rather than a religious one. This means some Americans—including self-proclaimed evangelicals—who say they trust Trump more than religious leaders may have no meaningful relationships with religious leaders at all. They may not have a pastor to trust.
Yet even if they do, discounting pastoral authority is nothing new. And even allowing for a high margin of error, the gap between trust in Trump and trust in religious leaders is large enough that I think this survey gives us a glimpse of something real, if only through a glass, darkly.
The fact remains that there’s a crisis of authority in the American church which did not begin with Trump and would not be fixed by his absence. As I’ve shared at CT before, I’ve repeatedly heard from pastors who feel they are losing the ability to speak into their congregants’ lives—that they’re in competition with the increasingly pervasive influence of social media, political pundits, and cable news.
These anecdotes aren’t outliers. As dechurching continues apace, nearly half a century of Gallup polling shows that Americans’ rating of the “honesty and ethical standards of clergy” has been in long decline. Church authorities, as CT has reported, are rated “below multiple medical professions, teachers, and police.”
Of course, there are good reasons trust in clergy has largely declined, and distrust of the whole profession doesn’t always entail distrust of one’s own pastor. Scandals of abuse, corruption, and authoritarian behavior figure prominently in instances where trust in church leaders is lost. Sometimes we’re right to question or outright reject authority that is wrongly claimed or unjustly used. Sometimes distrust is earned and deserved.
Yet, with all due qualifications, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes authority is not misused but disregarded for illegitimate reasons.
Sometimes, even when our leaders “have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way,” we fail to have “confidence in [them] and submit to their authority.” Sometimes they rightly “keep watch over [us] as those who must give an account,” but we do not make their work “a joy” (Heb. 13:17–18). Sometimes our pastors tell us we need to repent or adopt a new spiritual discipline or reconsider our theology, and our answers amount to a shrug.
At times, God gives church leaders authority for building us up (2 Cor. 10:8), but we build with straw (1 Cor. 3:12). Or maybe we don’t feel much like building at all. Perhaps we “listen to the word but [do] not do what it says,” “like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23–24).
I’ve done this myself, many times—nodded along to the sermon only to forget it, shamefully, by lunch time. Equally, in my own teaching roles at church, I’ve been frustrated to realize fellow congregants are doing the same thing to me, enthusing about how much they appreciate my insights and seeming to adopt precisely none of them. I suspect every pastor and lay leader has experienced the same.
Some of this is just the nature of the church, a community of people struggling to conform to the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29). But some of it is our apathy and unwillingness to submit to legitimate authority when its dictates don’t align with our own desires. Some of it is our (perhaps subconscious) resistance to the New Testament’s consistent command that when a pastor—who knows us, loves us, and is calling us “to live in the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6, 4:11–20)—gives us instruction, we are to heed it.
I don’t know how to change that, frankly. I don’t know, in a culture as doggedly individualistic as ours, if this trajectory can be changed. But I do know it’s a much larger and more durable matter than the level of public trust in Donald Trump.
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.