Americans love Pope Francis and his forgiveness agenda, but they're less enthusiastic about the judgments he's making about secular issues such as the the debate over climate change and income inequality, according to a new Bloomberg Politics poll completed on the eve of the pope's arrival for his first visit to the United States.
The survey gave Francis a 64 percent favorability rating, considerably higher than those of all the U.S. political leaders the poll asked about, and twice that of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
The pope is admired by a majority of all ideological, generational, and religious groups: 86 percent of Catholics approve of him, but so do 55 percent of born-again Christians and 58 percent of Americans who adhere to no religion.
“I think he's giving the Catholic Church a new perspective, that it doesn't have to be so rigid,” said Lydia Becker, a 59-year-old Catholic who works as a dental assistant in Homestead, Florida. “He's more open to change. I just find him totally amazing.”
When it comes to the pope's messages of forgiveness or increased tolerance on traditionally hot-button social issues—abortion, gays, marriage, and immigration—Americans across party lines are overwhelmingly supportive of Francis.
But on the one global issue on which he’s staked so much of his reputation, with a June papal encyclical urging action to combat climate change, just one-third of those surveyed are supportive.
They're also lukewarm about the pope's activism against economic inequality, which has become a rallying cry for Democrats in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In Bolivia last month, Francis gave a speech in which he decried the “subtle dictatorship” of money. Where “an unfettered pursuit of money rules,” the pope said, “the service of the common good is left behind.” Asked how they feel about Francis's denunciations of the “economy of exclusion and inequality,” 48 percent of those responding said it is a “good direction” for the Catholic Church.
On all other actions polled, Francis got broad and enthusiastic support across all demographic groups. On the question of whether he was right to authorize priests to forgive women who have had abortions, approval extended even to born-again Christians, 71 percent of whom called it a “good direction.” Among that group, 62 percent also gave a thumbs-up to Francis's refusal to judge gays.
Some poll respondents admire no-frills style of the pope, who upon his arrival in the United States on Tuesday got into the smallest car of the motorcade. “I think he's a real guy,” said Mike Lynch, 75, of Columbia, Missouri.
Referring to Francis's roots in Latin America, Lynch added: “He comes from a part of the world that's underdeveloped and I think he's got a knowledge, a feeling for that, more than previous popes.” But the retired hospital executive, who described himself as a conservative Republican without strong religious leanings, questioned the appropriateness of the pope politicking on environmental issues. “I don't really think he's got the background and knowledge to comment on climate change,” Lynch said. “He can have his own opinion on that sort of thing. I just don't think he ought to be doing it from the pulpit.”
The poll suggests that a significant number of Americans remain skeptical about global warming. Of those surveyed, 31 percent said they agreed with the statement that “climate change is a total hoax.” That compares to 65 percent who disagreed.
While the pope gets positive ratings across a majority of most demographics, different cross-sections of America are more enthusiastic than others. Democrats have a more favorable view of Francis than Republicans, 73 percent to 59 percent. Those with college and post-college degrees are more likely to favor Pope Francis than those who with no more than a high school education, while he’s more popular with older Americans than those younger than 35. He’s most popular in the Northeast and least popular in the Western states, and he’s slightly more popular with women than men, 67 percent to 61 percent.
The splits are most pronounced when it comes to Francis’s views on the outspoken call for a global drive to reverse climate change, which he blames on human activity: 71 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of independents, and 42 percent of Democrats call it a “bad direction.” Reactions to Francis’s stance on economic inequality also break along party lines: only 37 percent of Republicans like the pope's outspoken condemnation of capitalistic excess, compared to 63 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile, 59 percent of younger Americans say it’s good for the church to critique capitalism in this way, compared to 41 percent of Americans 55 and older.
The survey of 1,001 U.S. adults was conducted Sept. 18-21 for Bloomberg Politics by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points on the full sample.