New Pew Center Poll Shows Improving Attitudes Toward Catholics and All Faith Groups

Between 2014 and 2017, “warm” public ratings for Catholics increased from 62 to 66.

Pope Francis addresses a crowd at the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015.
Pope Francis addresses a crowd at the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015. (photo: Register Files)

They like me, they really like me! A poll released by the Pew Research Center on February 15 reveals that Americans' attitudes toward people of faith have improved in just three years – and that Jews and Catholics are especially well regarded by people of all faiths.

Pew's survey of U.S. adults – titled “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups” – was conducted on January 9-23, 2017. The American Trends Panel's survey participants included both Republicans and Democrats, men and women, younger and older Americans. The respondents were asked to rate various religious groups on a “feeling thermometer,” with 0 being least warm and 100 being warmest.

The last time the survey was conducted, in June 2014, Jews and Catholics already topped the list of well-regarded religious groups; but the two religions have each gained in public regard since that time. Public attitudes toward Jews increased 4 points, from 63 to 67. In the same three-year period, “warm” ratings for Catholics increased from 62 to 66.

Other religious groups also earned higher “warmth” ratings, although they didn't catch up with the Jews and Catholics at the top of the scale. Receiving more favorable ratings in 2017 were Buddhists (60), Hindus (58), Mormons (54), Atheists (50) and Muslims (48). Only Evangelical Christians remained level in the past three years, at a relatively warm 61.

Some findings are not surprising: For example, personally knowing someone in a particular religious group leads to warmer feelings toward that group in general.

And in general, respondents with higher educational background expressed more positive feelings toward all religious groups than did those with lower educational achievements. An exception to this is Evangelical Christians, who are viewed less warmly (average of 57) by those with college degrees than by those without advanced degrees, who rank Evangelicals at 63.

Differences Among Older and Younger Respondents

One finding revealed by the study was a difference in how older and younger Americans regard their fellow citizens of varying faith backgrounds. Americans 65 years or older reported a wide spread in their view of faith adherents – ranking Mainline Protestants most favorably, at 75, while Atheists were the lowest at 44. That 31-point spread was narrowed considerably among younger Americans (ages 18-29), who divided the highest- and lowest-ranked religious groups by only 12 points. Younger respondents ranked Buddhists at the top, with 66, while Mormons were lowest at 54.

Is that narrowing gap in younger respondents' perceptions regarding people of faith a good thing or a bad thing?

If, on the one hand, the poll results signify greater tolerance toward varying viewpoints, that could be a good thing. On the other hand, if the narrowed range of opinion among younger Americans is the result of low information and, worse, low interest about the things of God, then the survey results could portend an increasingly secularized society which relegates all faiths to the private sphere.

If older Americans' more divergent views of faith groups expose an inherent prejudice and discrimination among seniors, then that's bad; but if their broader scale is attributable to a wider range of life experience and a deeper personal knowledge, then it's both realistic and helpful.

Pew Center's American Trends Panel is a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults recruited from landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys. Panelists participate via monthly self-administered web surveys. If a panelist does not have internet access, Pew will provide a tablet and wireless internet connection.