The honesty of clergy, car salesmen, and politicians


Gallup reports that fewer Americans regard the clergy as honest now than at any time since it started asking the question in 1977. Clergy (47 percent) are still far more likely to be perceived as honest than car salesman (9 percent) who only surpass such lowlifes as politicians (8 percent) and lobbyists (7 percent) in their perceived honesty. Yet, being perceived as dishonest is a much greater problem for clergy than it is for car salesmen, and, to a lesser extent, politicians. The dishonesty of car salesmen is not a big social problem, however, unlike the dishonesty of politicians.

The reason why many people distrust car salesmen is that we think car salesmen know something about the quality of a car that they are not telling us. They have incentives to lie: a good car without problems fetches a higher price than a lemon. Surely, a car salesman would like us to simply trust him that the car is a peach. Yet, even if we don’t believe that the salesman is honest, we may still decide to purchase the car. This is because there are mechanisms that help us manage our distrust, such as CarFax reports, warranties, and online feedback.

These mechanisms work reasonably well because the quality of cars is observable. Ultimately, we are going to find out whether a car is a peach or a lemon. This allows us to price warranties and create records of historical performance. It also helps individual car dealers to build up reputations for honesty even if we don’t trust car salesmen more generally. The market for cars does not collapse because we think that car dealers are dishonest.

In the case of religion, the problem is the “inscrutable nature of the good,” as the sociologist Diego Gambetta puts it. Clergymen have no private information about quality. Consumers cannot at reasonable expense discover the quality of promises, such as rewards in an afterlife.  This means that the authority of clergy is intrinsically linked to how much we trust them.

Written By: Erik Voeten
continue to source article at


  1. Putting the child molesters aside, some clergy feel that they are doing a job that requires transmitting doctrine to the members of the congregation, but at the same time feel it is not up to them to pass judgement on the truth of such. In those cases, the clergy may consider themselves honest people, even when they are teaching things that they doubt are true. Of course, when things turn out not to be true, the public is going to be bitter about that, but is usually not going to make the “just doing a job” distinction, and therefore, those clergy get lumped in with the car salesmen.

  2. Many people get around the problem of dodgy car dealers by having the car checked by an independent expert organisation. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for the RDF. For a small fee they could check out a religion, kick its wheels, make sure its odometer is accurate and give prospective buyers an honest appraisal


  3. To some extent this is uniquely (?) American issue, because some 30-40,000 businessmen have set up their own churches with tax exemptions because, well, it’s good business. There’s not a lot of quality control, such as you find in larger organised religions.

    No, I’m not going to say all Catholic priests are saints, but there is a lot of training, qualification and top-down management to stop them setting the Fifth Peoria Church of Only Slightly Different Catholicism and breaking ranks.

    Nobody’s going to trust a priest with a multi-megabucks megachurch and a private jet. At least, nobody sane.

  4. Even a dodgy car salesman let’s you have a dodgy car for your money. The clergy get your money and you get nothing back in return just pixey dust.
    In reply to #1 by Miserablegit:

    Like dodgy car salesmen, clergy are trying to sell us a pack of lies.

  5. I recall taking a psychology test about 30 years ago for a college psychology course. One quality of mine was directly opposite to another group comprised of used car salesmen, convicts, and religious clergy. Seriously, no joke. I never forgot this and have always been intrigued by the results.

  6. In reply to #1 by Miserablegit:

    Like dodgy car salesmen, clergy are trying to sell us a pack of lies.

    Or could be some of them are trying to be as forthright and earnest as they can without giving up their whole careers. See the new Dennett book, “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Believe Behind.”

  7. With the car salesman and the politician you know they might be telling you the truth. With a clergyman promising you an afterlife, you know s/he’s just lying !

  8. In reply to #8 by Mr DArcy:

    With the car salesman and the politician you know they might be telling you the truth. With a clergyman promising you an afterlife, you know s/he’s just lying !

    I sometimes wonder what percentage of the clergy actually believe what they preach on Sundays…

  9. Depending on where you live, there is usually a good degree of comeback, vis a vis a warranty or consumer protection with a used car. The salesperson knows that they cannot stretch the truth too far without finding themselves in trouble.

    A politician can only be dishonest and tell lies for a certain length of time and they will be voted off by the people or kicked out by their party.

    Ministers of religion, however, can lie quite blatantly. They will tell you that in exchange for grovelling on your knees, singing silly songs, calling out in prayer to some invisible entity, giving a tithe or pouring money into their collection plate/box, that you’ll receive everlasting life in heaven alongside God/Jesus after you die. They never have to prove this, or even give some good evidence because they know that you will never have any comeback and you will never, ever discover that what they told you was nonsense or outright lies.

    I wonder how many ministers/priest/vicars, in their dying moments will wish that what they had told others was true instead of it being a monstrous lie?

    I could live with being a used car salesperson or a politician, but never with being a holy man/woman.

  10. In reply to #1 by Miserablegit:

    Like dodgy car salesmen, clergy are trying to sell us a pack of lies.

    Unfortunately, with so many needy, susceptible people around they don’t have to try too hard! But, hopefully, it’s changing, and if I was a member of the clergy at the present time, I’d be doing a course in something much more honourable.

  11. Religion sells lemons all the time! DON’T forget that humdinger of a lemon. The AFTERLIFE.

  12. The car salesman seems like a red herring, but these professions all involve lying on a grand scale to further the self interest of the three….politicians and clergy profess to be working on behalf of the people and are in positions of trust….we all know the car salesman is a greedy liar…waiting to shaft you of your money…you are their victim….
    Politicians and clergy get to their top positions by being quite ruthless and selfish…..they have a hunger for power……
    And of course honesty gets trampled along with all the victims of the wolves in sheeps clothing……honesty frightens these actors…..honesty should be used as a weapon against these three …lie detector testing would help ……

  13. In reply to #13 by Stafford Gordon:

    There’s flaw in this survey; it makes no mention of journalists.

    I suspect they’re a mixed bunch, and that most are “neutral” i.e. just repeat what other people tell them with minimal understanding or a desire to actively express no opinions (which is actually quite a weird idea).

    In reply to #10 by ArloNo:

    Most believe it themselves in some form or another, I think. That doesn’t make them trustworthy. That’s how they live with no regrets.

    Religions sell the sensation that you have received something, even that you have received it at no cost. This is not entirely different from consumer culture, where the anticipation of and desire for a purchase is more important than the utility of the item.

  14. celibacy

    Tongues were a waggin’ recently when the priest of a small, southern Illinois catholic church, bade adieu after finding a girlfriend. A family member loved him as an “old school / strict doctrine priest”; ironic, yet are younger priests continuing to think ” celibacy, go to Halifax”?

    …echoes with the sound of salesmen…

Leave a Reply