A sharp decline in the image of television ministers, increased confidence in organized religion in general and stability in attitudes toward religion and church involvement were some of the major trends in religious public opinion in 1987.
After the PTL Club scandal, an April survey found that 63 percent of Americans viewed TV evangelists as "untrustworthy," and 23 percent viewed them as "trustworthy." In 1980, a 41 percent plurality had positive views, and 36 percent of the public was negative. More than half the respondents viewed TV ministers as "dishonest."
Similarly, Americans in 1987 viewed the TV ministers as "insincere" rather than "sincere" by 51 to 34 percent; in 1980, 56 percent said the ministers were sincere while 25 percent said they were not.
The scandals increased public support for stricter accountability and government regulation of TV ministries. Ninety-two percent of Americans agreed that "religious organizations should make full disclosure of the funds they receive and how they are spent," up from 86 percent in 1980. Nearly half of all respondents felt the government should regulate fund raising of religious groups.
The increase in negative attitudes toward the TV ministers, who are primarily evangelical Christians, apparently carried over into attitudes toward evangelicals in politics. In 1987, 29 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who described himself as an evangelical, while 15 percent said they would be more likely to vote for such a candidate.
Fifty-three percent said it would make no difference, and the rest had no opinion. In 1980, 19 percent of Americans said they would be more likely to vote for an evangelical candidate, 9 percent said they would be less likely and 66 percent said it would make no difference.
Americans rank "religious" low on a list of qualities they want in a presidential candidate.
In a survey conducted in April for the Times Mirror Corp., "The People, Press and Politics," 4 percent of Americans ranked "religious" as the first characteristic they look for in a presidential candidate.
Thirty-eight percent rated "good judgment in a crisis" first or second; 34 percent said "trustworthy"; 33 percent said "a strong leader"; 16 percent said "intelligent"; 14 percent said "gets things done"; 12 percent said "knowledgeable"; 11 percent said "clear on issues."
Despite the increase in negative attitudes toward TV ministers, religion made a gain in public confidence after a decline in 1986. In 1985, 66 percent of Americans said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion, more than in any other institution; the military followed, with 61 percent.
In 1986, however, those expressing high levels of confidence in the military rose slightly to 63 percent, while a similar level of confidence in religion fell to 57 percent. In 1987, 61 percent of Americans expressed a high level of confidence in both religion and the military.
The trend toward stability in religious attitudes can be seen in a July 1987 survey that found that 53 percent of Americans said religion was "very important" in their lives; 33 percent said it was "fairly important", and 14 percent said it was "not very important." The findings were essentially the same in 1986.
This year, 71 percent of Americans said they were members of a church or synagogue, compared with 69 percent in 1986. Forty percent said they had attended church or synagogue in the past seven days, compared with 38 percent in 1986.