Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Americans who are familiar with Pope Benedict XVI have a favorable opinion of him. Catholics, not surprisingly, view the pope most favorably (86%). But large majorities of other religious groups, including more than seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (72%), mainline Protestants (75%) and black Protestants (70%), also are favorably inclined towards Pope Benedict. Among the religiously unaffiliated, however, just 57% have a favorable opinion of the pope.

As expected, Pope Benedict XVI is now better known among the public than he was two years ago. Currently, 68% offer an opinion of the pope, up from 55% in July 2005. Yet greater visibility has not improved the pope’s image. In 2005, 81% of those able to rate Pope Benedict expressed a favorable opinion of him, compared with 73% currently.
Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had higher favorability ratings. In 1996, an overwhelming majority (86%) of those who could rate Pope John Paul II expressed a favorable opinion of him. Moreover, about a third of Americans (32%) had a “very favorable” view of Pope John Paul II, compared with just 21% for the current pope, based on those who could rate each.

The gap in very positive views is particularly evident among Catholics. Half of Catholics had a very favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II in 1996; currently, just 32% express strongly positive opinions of Pope Benedict XVI. There is a similar, though less dramatic, difference in opinions of the two popes among white evangelical and white mainline Protestants. More than a quarter of white evangelical Protestants (26%) and white mainline Protestants (28%) had a very favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II, but only 16% and 14%, respectively, view Pope Benedict this way.

Divided Views of Pontiff’s Outreach

A plurality of Americans (46%) who have heard at least a little about Pope Benedict say he is doing only a fair or poor job of promoting good relations with other religions; 38% say the pope is doing an excellent or good job. Though Catholics give the pope higher marks for building interfaith relations (54%), even many among this group (40%) say he is doing only a fair job or a poor job in this regard.

There are substantial political differences in views on this issue, as in overall opinions about Pope Benedict. Conservative Republicans are the only political group in which a plurality believes the pope is doing an excellent or good job in promoting positive relations with other religions. Moderate and liberal Republicans are evenly divided over the pope’s performance in this area, while roughly half of independents (51%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (47%), and 61% of liberal Democrats, say he is doing only a fair or poor job in dealing with other religions.

There is a similar pattern in general views of Pope Benedict. By greater than five-to-one (84%-16%), conservative Republicans have a favorable opinion of the pope; substantial majorities of moderate and liberal Republicans (79%), independents (68%), and conservative and moderate Democrats (79%) also express highly positive views of Pope Benedict. But liberal Democrats have a less favorable view: 59% have a positive impression of the pope, compared with 41% who express an unfavorable opinion.

When asked whether they believe the pope is conservative, moderate or liberal most Americans who have heard of him say that the pope is conservative (56%). Another 17% say he is moderate and only 5% of Americans say he is liberal.

Views of the pope differ markedly by education level. Fully 71% of college graduates say the pope is very conservative (30%) or conservative (41%). Those with no college experience are less sure of the pope’s ideology; fewer than half of Americans (46%) with less than a high school education view the pope as a conservative.

Views of Other Religious Leaders

Evangelist Billy Graham is viewed positively by three-quarters of Americans who say they are familiar with the preacher. Graham is viewed favorably among most religious groups, especially among white evangelicals, 92% of whom have a favorable impression of him. Only among the religiously unaffiliated does a majority (52%) view him unfavorably.

Older Americans have a particularly favorable opinion of Graham. Among those who could rate Graham, 85% of those ages 50 and older — and 89% of those ages 65 and older —

have a favorable opinion of him. Among those younger than age 30, 60% have a positive view of Graham. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) Americans under the age of 30 have never heard of Graham.

Although fewer Americans are familiar with Graham today than 20 years ago, views of him have been remarkably stable. In 1987, 72% of the American public who could rate him said they had a favorable view of him.

Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is not nearly as well-known or as highly regarded as Billy Graham. The vast majority of Americans (64%) do not know enough about Dobson to have an opinion. Among those who do express an opinion of Dobson, 59% view him favorably and 41% view him unfavorably.