Recent nationwide poll by Centre College reveals Pope Francis improving view of Catholic Church but Southern Baptist Convention’s diversity efforts having limited effect

Posted by Centre News in News, Politics 10 Apr 2015

poll1A nationwide poll conducted by political scientists from Centre College shows that nearly half of Americans are aware of efforts by Pope Francis to increase transparency and openness in the Vatican bureaucracy, and nearly a quarter of Americans say that the Pope’s efforts have given them a more favorable view of the Catholic Church.

Fewer Americans, meanwhile, have followed the recent focus by the Southern Baptist Convention for its congregations to become more racially and ethnically diverse, and less than a tenth have a more positive view of the this denomination as a result.

Conducted by Benjamin Knoll and Chris Paskewich, assistant professors of politics at Centre, the “2015 Colonel’s Canvass Poll” was part of a community-based learning component of their spring 2015 courses. In all, 90 students participated in fielding the survey and administering the questions to respondents.

The randomized, nationally representative telephone survey was conducted March 12-18, 2015. It sampled 715 respondents, 62% of whom were reached via landline and 38% via cellphone. The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 3.7% for the full sample and 6% for the news awareness subsamples.

More Evidence of a “Pope Francis Effect”

While the “Pope Francis Effect” has had the strongest impact on Democrats and liberals as well as theological moderates, it cuts across religious lines and has also resulted in more positive views among evangelical and mainline Protestants, according to the survey.

Almost half (49.9%) of those polled reported following news of the Pope’s transparency and openness efforts, with nearly a third (31.8%) saying that they have followed the story either very closely or fairly closely.

Of those who have followed the story, 44.2% say that Pope Francis’s efforts have given them a “more favorable” view of the Catholic Church, whereas only 5.5% report that it has produced a “less favorable” view. The remaining 50.3% say that the Pope’s efforts have not changed their view of the church one way or another.

Combining these questions shows that a “Pope Francis Effect” is evident in that nearly a quarter (22.6%) of those surveyed are both aware of his efforts and have developed a more favorable view of the Catholic Church as a result.

This effect cuts across religion lines. Of those who were aware of the news story, 49.2% of Catholics, 45.2% of evangelical Protestants and 36.5% of mainline Protestants report that it gave them a more favorable view of the Catholic Church. Similarly, the Pope’s activities have resulted in a more favorable view of Catholicism among 48.8% of regular church-goers (who attend at least a few times a month) and 40.7% of less regular church-goers (who attend a few times a year or less).

Politically, this “Pope Francis Effect” is strongest among Democrats and liberals, with 51.6% of Democrats who are aware of the story reporting a more favorable view compared to 36% for Republicans. Also, 56.4% of political liberals who are aware of the story report a more favorable view of the Catholic Church compared to 33.3% of conservatives.

According to survey co-director Benjamin Knoll, “One of the strongest trends in religion and politics over the last century has been the gradual shift of the Catholic voting base away from the Democratic Party to where it is now a clear toss-up constituency. These results suggest that Pope Francis may potentially help nudge some Catholic voters back toward the Democrats.”

Pope Francis’s efforts have also had a strong effect on theological moderates, those who believe that their religion or church should “adjust its beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances.” Of those moderates who were aware of the story, 55.8% report that they have a more favorable view of the Catholic Church as a result. Roughly a third (36.8%) of theological conservatives (who prefer to “preserve traditional beliefs and practices”) report a more favorable view compared to only about a quarter (28%) of theological modernists (who want to “adopt modern beliefs and practices”).

“It is noteworthy,” says Knoll, “that Pope Francis’s efforts are most popular among theological moderates but least popular among theological modernists. It may be the case that modernists believe that the Pope’s reforms are not moving fast enough, especially when it comes to the role of women in the Catholic leadership structure.”

Southern Baptists and Diversity

Other survey questions asked about public perception of the recent acknowledgment by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that it needs to go to greater lengths to address racial diversity, particularly in the demographic makeup of its congregations.

The Colonel’s Canvass Survey, however, suggests that the SBC’s efforts may have a limited effect on public perceptions.

Slightly more than one in five (21.9%) of those polled reported that they were aware of the SBC’s focus on racial diversity in its congregations, with only 10.9% saying that they followed this news story either very closely or fairly closely.

Of those who followed the story, 31.1% reported a more favorable view of the SBC as a result, with 9% reporting a less favorable view. The remaining 59.6% said it did not change their view of the SBC one way or the other.

Combining responses of the two questions shows that only 7.1% of the public is both aware of the focus on racial diversity and that it produced a more favorable view of the SBC, compared to 2% who are both aware and resulted in a less favorableview.

“While great strides have been achieved to increase racial diversity in many aspects of government and society over the last several decades,” Knoll observes, “American churches are still strongly segregated along racial lines.”

According to Knoll, “Roughly 80% of evangelical Protestants in the United States are white. That being said, evangelicals are more racially diverse than mainline Protestants, Mormons or Jews.”

Nonetheless, Knoll concludes, “It seems that the SBC has its work cut out for it in terms of raising awareness on this issue.”

Complete Results and Contact Information

Full topline results for the survey questions associated with this release can be found here.

by Michael Strysick

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