Religious Leader Popularity ≠ Increase in Religious Practices

In a recent Pew Research Study of Pope Francis I favorability, nine in ten Catholics “viewed him favorably” compared to his predecessor, and all this since his election to the papacy (see Francis’ popularity was said to be on par with Pope John Paul II, although the numbers show he is slightly behind in favorability overall. The study also showed that the current pope’s popularity seems to run across religious denominations (74% among “other Protestants” and 68% among “other non-religious” including Agnostics), as well as Catholics who attend services less frequently (86%). With Pope Francis’ favorability increasing steadily since becoming Head of the Church in Rome, and especially among those who are NOT of the same religious denomination or particular faith practice, one has to wonder, could this be a sign of increased religiosity and religious practice? A recent article in the Washington Post, however, shows us that popularity of a religious leader does not necessarily equal an increase in general religious practices. According to the Washington Post article (see, findings from the 2014 General Social Survey showed that 57% of respondents prayed less than once a day, and 1 in 4 respondents showed no religious preference. Equally disheartening in the survey data was 3 in 10 respondents never attended religious services anymore. The survey also showed that millenials and younger adults (under 30 years of age) were the largest group commenting on this lack of religious commitment and/or preference.

While Pope Francis is gaining popularity and viewed “very favorably” among people engaging with social, print, and television media, it has not yet translated into an increase in religious practice or religiosity. In The Last Prophet book series (Book Four), it becomes apparent that the likeability and believability of a religious leader does have an effect on how we view religion or religious practice. The main character in the fourth book has to deal with the loss of her “popularity” and the drop in her viewed favorability in her career. When such popularity or favorability decreases due to scandal or false accusations, often times the opinions of those who had no preference or were non-committed to their religious preference take a turn for the worse. We need only look at media history with Jim Baker, and Jimmy Swaggart from the 1980s and 1990s to see the backlash of their fall from grace. Publicity is unkind to those whom followers held in high esteem. In my research for The Last Prophet book series and in dealing with people from various religions, I have been fortunate to meet individuals whose religious practice is not affected by the popularity of their religious leaders. They ascribe their religiosity to something other than the leadership of their church or temple. However, they seem to be in the minority when it comes to those they attend services or worship with. This same issue does not seem limited to religion. It appears to happen across all aspects of the modern world – politics, business, entertainment, sports, etc.

For example, if we really like a name brand because of the likeability of the spokesperson, do we stop liking it if the spokesperson becomes involved in a scandal that has nothing to do with the brand? Another example – do we stop liking a television show because the star is no longer attractive or their role on the show no longer appeals to us? I think you get the idea. The examples here are a bit of a stretch from the religious aspect mentioned earlier, but favorability of a person is not limited to that. Does the favorability of a person have an effect on how we view that aspect of life (e.g., religion, politics, business, entertainment, etc.)? Comment in the space provided.

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One thought on “Religious Leader Popularity ≠ Increase in Religious Practices”

  1. I think you’re right, Claire. There is little if any connection between the two – though it would be wonderful if his popularity would entice people into churches. Alas, I think that is a very personal choice that won’t be swayed by such trivialities. A great post.


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