The distrust and disapproval that Americans are feeling for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is following a downward trend that has been seen in religious circles over the past generation. Between 1973 and 2008, the percentage of people with "great confidence" in religious leaders declined from 35 percent to less than 25 percent, according to sociologist Mark Chaves in his book American Religion: Contemporary Trends.
Loss of faith in religious leaders has been driven by the Roman Catholic Church's mishandling of the sex-abuse scandal and misbehavior by numerous Protestant televangelists. "The American public has lost confidence in leaders of all sorts," Chaves said in 2011. "But the loss of confidence in religious leaders has been more precipitous."
Five years later, political leaders are on the same trajectory. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that only 19 percent of Americans feel they can trust the federal government always or most of the time. A Gallup Poll in July 2016 revealed that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are viewed unfavorably by 58 percent of the population.
But I am finding hope at the local level. Across the country, clergy and their congregations are working together in interfaith community groups, partnering with local politicians to improve housing, public safety, criminal justice, and health care. Trust in religious and political leaders that has been lost at the national level is being regained closer to home.
I am a leader of the interfaith organization VOICE: Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. Along with fellow clergy and members of area congregations, I have worked with the mayor and city council of Fairfax to develop the city's first-ever affordable-housing policy. VOICE leader Judy Fisher is a proponent of this policy, saying that it maintains "a community which welcomes all and allows local businesses to have a nearby workforce."
On Sunday, October 16, VOICE will gather 1600 of its leaders to meet with elected officials and get their support on affordable housing and public education, among other issues. The power of this organization comes from the fact that it is a non-partisan coalition of almost 50 faith communities and civic organizations, uniting people across the lines of race, class, religion, political party and geography.
Similar organizations are at work across the country, making a difference in their communities. In El Paso, Texas, more than 150 leaders of "Border Interfaith" have met with the sheriff and other law enforcement officers to build relationships of trust and address community concerns, such as drug dealing. In Nevada, the governor recently signed anti-sex trafficking legislation in the presence of "Nevadans for the Common Good," an interfaith group that fought hard to stop the pimps that recruit young people into prostitution.
In Los Angeles, the organization "One LA" gathered hundreds of leaders to secure commitments from elected officials to ensure funding for the "My Health LA" program. The LA County Board of Supervisors then voted to add $6 million to the program, which will expand coverage to as many as 40,000 individuals.
Our unhappiness with national politics should not cause us to give up hope. These days, most positive political activity is close to home, where communities actually improve when clergy, congregation members, and elected officials work together for the common good.