Wearing casual clothes instead of his clerical black, John Beattie walked into a Chinese take-out restaurant and was greeted with a "Hi, Father Jack."
As he stood in line, a woman next to him asked, " 'Father Jack,' as in Catholic priest?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Oh, you're a member of that organization," she said in a clearly pejorative tone.
Beattie recalled the incident when considering the results of a Gallup Poll released this week showing that the clergy, as a profession, continue to slip in public esteem.
From a peak eight years ago, when 67% of Americans rated clergy "very high" or "high" in honesty and ethical standards, this year only 53% of adults sampled nationwide gave them high marks for integrity.
"I'm saddened at that kind of slippage," said Beattie, a parish priest in the Fairfax area and chairman of the Council of Priests in the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese.
The woman's remark, in Beattie's thinking, reflected the view of "priests as agents of an organization, which is regarded as unresponsive, if not hostile, to women and gays," a perception which he said is false.
"Nonetheless, it's there in the present sociopolitical climate," he said.
But Beattie agrees with many religious leaders who point to the televangelist scandals and other controversies for starting a slide in public regard for clergy. In addition to sexual revelations about Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, controversies swirled over Oral Roberts' fund-raising claims and Pat Robertson's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
When Gallup pollsters asked the public their standard question about the honesty and ethical standards of a range of professions in 1988, 60% gave the clergy high marks--a drop of seven percentage points from 1985. In 1990, the figure dropped again to 55%.
In recent years, confessions of affairs by Protestant pastors with women congregants, and sexual molestation convictions of Catholic priests have further besmirched the clerical image.
The Rev. John Moody, pastor of North Hollywood First Presbyterian Church, said behavior by high-profile figures can cause people to draw conclusions about all clergy that may or may not be true.
"If you are not involved in a congregation, you may not be able to make the distinction," Moody said.
By the same token, the news spotlight rarely falls on pharmacists, who took over the top spot from the clergy in 1988 and were thought to be highly ethical by 65% of the public this year.
And, to some observers, having more than half of the public think highly of clergy is cause for cheer. When 54% last year gave the clergy high marks for honesty, author-columnist Randall Balmer saw the cup as half full, rather than half empty.
"In Great Britain and in Western Europe, clergy have become the object of ridicule, very often caricatured as overweight, lazy and fond of sherry," wrote Balmer, a religion professor at Columbia University.
Also, other surveys show that churches--as opposed to their ordained leaders--still rank high in U.S. society. For example, a 1992 Times Mirror Co. survey found that in asking about groups that have a good or bad influence "on the way things are going in this country," 85% said churches have a good influence.
Independently run businesses (91%) and "computers and technology" (87%) ranked higher than churches as influences for good, but the religious institutions were regarded more highly than environmental groups, newspapers, the courts and Congress.
The public also thinks clergy are far more honest and ethical than politicians and journalists, according to Gallup surveys. Legislators currently garner ethical ratings between 14% and 19%, depending on their job description. News men and women rank higher, but "TV reporters," "journalists" and "newspaper reporters" all were either ranked six to eight percentage points lower this year than they were 12 years ago. TV reporters are rated highest among newspeople, regarded as highly ethical by 28%.
Despite the relatively high public regard for clergy, those who have chosen the ministry as their life's work see their influence being usurped by the news media.
Nearly 80% of a national sample of clergy in six denominations last winter agreed with a statement that "the news media have a greater influence on the way people think and act today than religion does." In that survey by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, only 33% of a national sampling of newspaper editors and religion writers agreed with that statement.
Moreover, since 1988, Gallup polls annually show that more people believe religion is losing influence than believe religion's sway is gaining. Yet, polls have shown cyclical variations: In the early 1980s and in the 1950s, religion was thought to be gaining influence.
Indeed, despite the current slide of public opinion regarding clergy ethics, Father Beattie does not think of the situation as terminally dark.