September 16, 2010
Poll: Glenn Beck the Wrong Leader to Lead Religious Movement
Glenn Beck's recent "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington focused more on faith than politics, but most Americans don't consider the conservative broadcaster the right person to lead a religious movement -- or even know what religion he follows, according to a new poll.
Fewer than one in five Americans (17 percent) believe Beck is the right person to helm a religious movement, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service.
Half of respondents say he's the wrong person; the rest either don't know or declined to answer.
Beck was only correctly identified as a Mormon by 17 percent of respondents -- the same number who think he is either Protestant or Catholic.
This confusion may work to Beck's advantage as an aspiring religious leader, however, since the poll also found that two-thirds of respondent think Mormons have beliefs different from their own, including 41 percent who consider them "very different."
"Perceptions of the Mormon religion have a strong impact on views of Glenn Beck, but only among the relatively small contingent who are aware of his religious affiliation," said Daniel Cox, director of research for PRRI, a nonpartisan research firm in Washington.
Put another way, when people know Beck is Mormon, their views about the Mormon faith directly impact their views about him. People who see affinity with Mormons have a higher regard for him than those who find differences with the Mormon faith.
The results are consistent with other studies about the fast-growing faith's role in public life, including polls about 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.
"Because other surveys show that Mormons are not especially popular with Americans, as a rule, then it's likely that if more people found out Glenn Beck's religious background, that would inhibit them following him," Green said.
Among the small number of respondents who knew of Beck's faith, 37 percent said he is the right person to lead a religious movement -- an approval rating that's double the general response, Cox explained, because this cohort already includes many of Beck's fans.
For those who know that Beck is Mormon and also believe that Mormons have different views than their own, the number drops to 28 percent who said he should be a religious leader.
When Beck is correctly identified as a Mormon, his general approval rating also depends on what Americans think of Mormons: Among people who know Beck is Mormon and believe Mormons have religious beliefs different than their own, 42 percent had a negative opinion of him, significantly higher than the 27 percent of the general population.
The views of Beck and Mormons are generally consistent across political and religious lines; Beck comparatively draws more support from white evangelicals and Republicans than other groups.
-- The 50 percent of Americans who believe that Beck is the wrong person to lead a religious movement included 42 percent of white evangelicals, half of white mainline Protestants, 33 percent of black Protestants and 56 percent of Catholics. Politically, they include 40 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents.
-- The 17 percent of Americans who say Beck is the right person to lead a religious movement included 26 percent of white evangelicals, 16 percent of white mainline Protestants, 14 percent of black Protestants, and 18 percent of Catholics. Politically, they included 29 percent of Republicans, 6 percent of Democrats, and 16 percent of independents.
Beck's higher approval ratings among evangelicals -- given that they traditionally have not considered Mormons as Christians -- reflects the growing evangelical-Mormon alliance on conservative culture war issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, Green said.
But the idea that evangelicals would seek spiritual, rather than political, direction from a Mormon deeply troubles Russell D. Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said it represents confusion or ambivalence about the "striking" differences between evangelical and Mormon theology.
"I'm concerned about an evangelical Christianity that has so lost sight of the gospel that it is unable to ask the question, `When you say `God and Country,' what God are you talking about? Where is Jesus in all of this?"'
The fact that a Mormon is in a position to be considered a national religious movement leader by even one in five Americans represents a major sign of progress for Mormons, and a leadership vacuum among conservative Christians, said Richard Ostling, co-author of "Mormon
"The generation of leaders on the religious right are dead or in decline or aging or not as influential as they once were. And he's not as much of a political activist like a Ralph Reed, or a candidate of the Pat Robertson type. He's an entertainer, first and foremost, which makes him a unique figure."
Ostling added, however, that Beck's religious beliefs are crucial to understanding his current motivation.
Mormonism is "a very American religion: you have the Garden of Eden located on American soil, you have the Second Coming happening in the United States, and you have the United States with a divinely inspired Constitution," he said. "It's a very natural fit for a devout Mormon to lead this kind of God-and-country movement."
The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on telephone interviews conducted of 1,007 U.S. adults between Sept. 9 and 12, after Beck's Washington rally. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.