A new survey conducted by The Barna Group found that the most positive feelings Americans had toward 16 public figures, including politicians, entertainers and ministers, were awarded to actor Denzel Washington. The least favorable image was associated with singer Britney Spears. The range of opinions was significant: 85% had a favorable view of Mr. Washington and just 2% held a negative view of him. In contrast, 34% had a positive view of Ms. Spears but 54% had a negative opinion of her.
The survey discovered several unexpected patterns in people’s reactions to the 16 public figures assessed. Among those insights is the comparative lack of awareness of some of the nation’s leading Christian ministers and the fact that bestselling authors do not generate high levels of public awareness.
Ministers Remain Unknown
In today’s celebrity culture, even the most well-known ministers remain relatively obscure. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Rick Warren. Pastor of a megachurch in southern California and author of the bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, he has appeared on countless radio and television programs and on the cover of numerous magazines in the past several years. His book, with sales exceeding 25 million copies, is reportedly the biggest selling non-fiction book in U.S. history (with the exception, ironically, of the Bible). Yet, despite such accomplishments, Mr. Warren remains unknown to most adults in this country. Three of out every four adults (72%) say they have never heard of him, including two out of every three born again Christians (63%). Among those who recognize his name, he has an average favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of 2:1. (In contrast, several other individuals evaluated had ratios of better than 10:1.)
Another example is James Dobson, the Christian psychologist whose radio program regarding family matters reaches the largest audience of any religious personality. Almost six out of every ten adults (57%) said they had never heard of Dr. Dobson; in fact, nearly half of all born again Christians said they did not know who he was. Among those familiar with Dr. Dobson, 27% had a favorable impression and 8% had an unfavorable view. However, among evangelical Christians – the small but well-chronicled segment that is clearly Dr. Dobson’s core constituency – his rating was 69% favorable, 4% unfavorable, and 21% who had never heard of him. (The other 6% did not have an opinion of him.)
T.D. Jakes, recently labeled by a major news magazine as the next Billy Graham, is also a megachurch pastor and considered by many to be the most influential African-American clergyman in the country. That would surprise most Americans, however, since two out of three (68%) say they have never heard of him, a view echoed by 55% of all born again Christians. In total, 22% have a positive impression of him and 4% have a negative impression.
Tim LaHaye, a former pastor and political activist turned author, was a co-author of the best-selling fiction series of all-time, the Left Behind series of books. Despite his writing success and 40-plus years in public ministry, three out of four adults (73%) have never heard of Mr. LaHaye, a view common to two-thirds of all born again adults (63%). He has a 13% favorability score and a 5% unfavorable rating. Among evangelicals, he fares much better: 42% favorable and 6% unfavorable.
Joel Osteen is pastor of one of the largest congregations in the country, and is the featured speaker on the most widely watched religious teaching program in the nation. His most recent book was also a multi-million selling hit. Yet, Mr. Osteen is an unknown commodity to two-thirds of the adult public (67%), and is unknown even among a majority of born again adults (57%). His favorability ratio is 3:1, based on 18% favorable and 6% unfavorable sentiment.
Authors Struggle for Recognition
By far the best-known celebrities among those tested were movie stars. Denzel Washington was known to 93% of the adult population. Mel Gibson was known to 96%. Rosie O’Donnell, who made a number of films prior to her transition to television, was known to 95%.
Authors, however, toil in relative obscurity. Anne Rice has had more than a dozen bestselling books and has sold more than 80 million novels during her career. Those who know her, like her; but most Americans (55%) said they had never heard of her. Tim LaHaye has sold more than 70 million books during his career, but is unknown to three-fourths of adults. Rick Warren penned a record-setting blockbuster, but is unknown to three-fourths of the nation. James Dobson has sold tens of millions of books on family issues, and supports those books through his daily radio broadcasts on more than 1000 radio stations, yet he remains a mystery to most Americans.
Perhaps the quickest way to high negative ratings, though, is via politics. In the survey, President Bush received a 50% unfavorable rating, former President Bill Clinton had a 32% unfavorable rating, and former Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft had a 23% unfavorable rating. The negative scores for those three national public servants ranked among the highest negative scores, challenged only by those awarded to Ms. Spears (54% negative) and Ms. O’Donnell (47% negative).
Evangelicals Think Differently
The survey showed that evangelical Christians have significantly different views about public figures than do other Americans, including non-evangelical born again Christians.
Compared to other people groups, evangelicals were better informed about and awarded higher favorability ratings to all five of the religious leaders tested, as well as to President Bush. When compared to born again Christians who were not evangelical, they held considerably more negative views of Ms. O’Donnell, Mr. Gibson, President Clinton and newscaster Katie Couric. They were also much less familiar with country singer Tim McGraw
Major Distinctions by Race
Interestingly, there was not a single person evaluated for which a majority of the white population held a “very favorable” impression. Among black adults, though, three individuals received such high marks: Mr. Washington (75%), Mr. Clinton (62%) and Pastor Jakes (57%). Among Hispanics, Mr. Washington was the sole recipient a majority awarding the highest rating (57%).
Several other figures had greater appeal to the ethnic communities than to the white public. Those individuals included Mr. Gibson, Ms. Spears and Pastor Osteen.
The Best Image
Overall, the person who received the highest percentage of people giving a “very favorable” opinion was Denzel Washington (53%). The lowest was received by Rick Warren (5%). The highest “very favorable” response awarded by evangelicals went to James Dobson (63%) while they gave the lowest to Britney Spears (3%).
When the two positive scores (“very favorable” and “somewhat favorable”) were combined to create a net positive score, the highest of those went to Mr. Washington (85%), Tim McGraw (72%), Faith Hill (71%), Mel Gibson (69%) and Bill Clinton (64%). The lowest went to Pastor Warren (12%) and Mr. LaHaye (13%).
When the two positive scores (“very favorable” and “somewhat favorable”) were combined and then compared with the two negative scores (“very unfavorable” and “somewhat unfavorable”), giving the favorability-unfavorability ratio, the best ratios were received by Mr. Washington (42:1), Ms. Hill (14:1), and Mr. McGraw (12:1).
Why Awareness Matters
For actors and artists, awareness facilitates potential sales. For ministers, awareness fosters influence on lives. A favorable image provides access to people’s minds and hearts more readily.
George Barna, who directed the research study, commented that the low awareness of the Christian leaders evaluated coincides with other recent studies showing that Christianity is losing its grip on American culture. “You cannot make a difference in someone’s life if you do not have entrée in that life. In our society, even clergy compete for people’s attention and acceptance. One of the reasons that the Christian faith is struggling to retain a toehold in people’s lives is because even the highest-profile leaders of the faith community have limited resonance with the population.”
“The survey statistics suggest that perhaps Christian individuals are more attuned to matters of culture and entertainment than to matters of faith,” the researcher continued. “People pay attention to what they deem important. These figures may be another indicator that millions of Christians invest more of their mental energy in cultural literacy than in biblical literacy.”
Public Opinion Toward Public Figures
Sample Size: 1003
never heard of
Bush, George W.
Negative includes “very unfavorable” and “somewhat unfavorable”
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)
The data in this report are from a national survey conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of adults, age 18 and older, conducted in October 2006. In total, 1003 adults were interviewed. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a privately held, for-profit corporation that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2006.
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