Until recently Pope Francis enjoyed astronomically high approval ratings among Americans, but a new Gallup survey suggests that in the run-up to the Pope’s much anticipated visit to the United States this September his popularity may be ebbing, especially among conservatives.
From his election in April 2013, Pope Francis had steadily gained approval among U.S. citizens, starting at a modest 58 percent and slowly but inexorably climbing to 76 percent in February 2014 and culminating in a high of 78 percent at the end of that year. The moral capital Francis had built up seems to have fallen precipitously in recent months, and his approval rating now languishes at just 59 percent, barely more than what it was just after his election.
Among Catholics as well, Francis’ popularity has declined significantly in the past year, from an enviable 89 percent in 2014 to a somewhat more discreet 71 percent in Gallup’s latest poll, a drop of 18 percent.
More important perhaps has been the ideological divide, with Francis losing approval among self-identified conservatives at a far greater pace than among liberals. Though Francis’ approval rating has suffered among all demographic groups, liberals still give him a favorable rating of 68 percent, while conservatives now have dropped below the 50 percent mark, at only 45 percent. While liberals dropped 14 percent in their approval ratings of the Pope in the past year, conservatives fell at nearly double that rate, or 27 percent.
What all this means—in terms of both causes and effects—is no doubt complex, and speculation has already begun especially regarding the factors that have provoked the rapid change.
Some cite the Pope’s recent encyclical on responsibility for creation, Laudato Si, as a cause of alienation among conservative Americans, especially because of the Pope’s strong affirmation of human-induced climate change and his suggestion that a free market economy may contribute to ecological problems.
Others have proposed that the Pope’s decline in popularity may have resulted from his change in focus from that of his immediate predecessors, with less attention given to the church’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage and more of his time devoted to discussing social inequity and poverty.
The Pope’s decreased approval rating among self-proclaimed liberals may seem harder to explain, but it is probable that he has disappointed them too, by showing he wasn’t the arrant progressive many hoped he would be. His firm resistance to same-sex marriage as well as his unambiguous condemnation of abortion and euthanasia may have proved a bitter pill to swallow for those who thought they finally had a pope that would fully embrace the morality of secular culture.
The new Gallup poll comes just as Francis is preparing to make his first visit to the United States, when he will travel to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. While in the nation’s capital, he will become the first pope ever to address a joint session of Congress.
Pope Francis has never been in the United States and admits he doesn’t know the country or its people well. His September visit will give Americans the chance to see the pontiff up close, and for him to get to know them as well.
Whether Americans approve of him more or less after the visit remains to be seen, but they will undoubtedly know him better.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome