I have listened to a great many voices
raised in righteous indignation lately about the accounting deceptions widely
practiced in the 1990's by leaders of major corporations like Enron, WorldCom,
and the like. The sins of our business and political leaders have been the big
news makers, not to mention the scandals over child abuse in the Catholic Church.
All of this makes for lurid headlines and involves real people losing their retirement
savings on the one hand, or their sense of innocence on the other. One can easily
be filled by anger at the thought of those once trusted with either our material
or spiritual treasures betraying that trust on such a spectacular scale. Castigating
such leaders in the press and on television talk shows may be the equivalent of
the public floggings of a previous generation ... while physical punishment and
torture have largely been forbidden, public humiliation of those identified as
sinners has not.
But while spotlights of indignation
are focused on high profile public leaders, I remain to be convinced that the
stories we read about in the nation's newspapers and listen to on radio talk shows
are any more lurid that what one finds when the same spotlights are focused upon
the ordinary behavior of those most frequently thought of as the "good, law-abiding"
citizens of the Republic. Is cheating on your income tax any less a crime than
what the accountants at Enron were doing? Further, sex abuse most often occurs
between members of the same family and within the intimacy of the home, rather
than at school, at work or in church.
of what I have in mind are those statistics on church attendance reported by Gallup
and others. You've probably heard those supposedly heartening reports. Church
attendance in the U.S. continues at very high levels despite numerous, premature
announcements of the demise of organized religion. Year after year, about 40 percent
of U.S. citizens tell pollsters that they have attended church or synagogue in
the last seven days. With this "evidence" in mind, one might conclude
that church going is as popular as ever, despite decades of so-called "secularization."
The problem is that these polls are known to be highly inaccurate. People are
massively over reporting their church attendance.
put it bluntly, when asked about religious belief and practice, ordinary citizens
lie. And they lie about their faith to a greater degree then they lie about
their sex life, or political activity.
do I know this? From several research projects involving an actual head count
of the number of people attending churches in areas of the country where people
were reporting high levels of attendance. For example, researchers C. Kirk Hadaway,
P. L. Marler and Mark Chaves physically counted every person in every Protestant
church in one Ohio county and in every Catholic church in 18 dioceses. They found
that, in fact, only 20 percent of Protestants were actually in church on a given
Sunday morning, whereas 40 percent reported they had attended church that Sunday.
Likewise, they found that only 28 percent of Catholics attended mass, while 50
percent reported doing so.
have confirmed these findings. The interesting question then follows. Why do people
misrepresent their religious activity? Or to put it more bluntly, why do
they lie about their faith? There is a well known phenomenon among social science
researchers that people tend to answer questions on the basis of what they think
the pollster wants to hear, or what they think the "correct" answer
ought to be. Hadaway and Marler put it this way:
asks, "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last
seven days?" Active church members who did not happen to attend church last
Saturday or Sunday are expected to say no in response to Gallupís question. But
this creates problems for people who see themselves as committed church members
and "weekly attenders." Many have an internal rule that says, "I
am a person who attends church every week." Saying "No, I did not attend
church" violates that internal rule and identifies them, symbolically, as
non churchgoers. On the other hand, saying, "Yes, I went" is consistent
with their internal rule, counts them on the side of active churchgoers, is in
line with their usual behavior (including what they hope to do next week) and
affirms their support of the church. (For
the full text of the article: "Did You Really Go To Church This Week?")
believe than similar factors were at work in the accounting frauds of the 1990's.
In American society we put a great premium on success. Everyone wants to be part
of a growing enterprise; few seek failure. Naturally, business leaders want to
tout their company's growth, and favorable prospects for the future. They also
know that sounding negative or pessimistic is not a quality that Americans admire
in their leaders. People want to hear that it's "morning in America,"
and do not want their leaders to point out problems that are difficult or even
impossible to solve. In other words, the public seems to rank success as a more
important value than honesty. And nearly everyone in a position of leadership
understands this. Unless and until we learn to be honest with ourselves, can we
expect our elected leaders to have an integrity we lack? This is not to say there
should be less attention to misconduct by those who hold positions of public trust.
It is to suggest that there's a large element of hypocrisy involved in public
debate involving citizens who are not examining their own behavior as critically
as they examine the behavior of others.