Public religious figures draw attention to issues, but response hard to predict

The interplay of politics and religion may shape a person’s response to issues even when prominent public figures, like Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, serve as advocates, according to researchers.

In a study of how political and religious identities shape a person’s response to climate change, Catholic Democrats tended to support climate change policies when Pope Francis was featured in a news story about climate change, while Catholic independents were more likely to support climate-change policies when the pontiff was not featured in the story, said Jessica Myrick, associate professor of communications at Penn State. In fact, independents’ support for policies to deal with climate change actually dropped when the pope’s stand on climate change was featured in a news story, she added.

Public figures, like Pope Francis, can generate attention for a cause, but the reaction to that influence is by no means uniform, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture.

“We have so much going on in our daily lives and we’re bombarded by so much media that it really does help to have a public figure — or a knowable source — to help cut through and get our attention,” said Myrick. “But, that figure may persuade people differently, or shift opinions differently. I think this study points out that it may not just be about a person’s political ideology, or his or her religious affiliation, it is the interplay of both that shapes the response.”

In 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical — a papal letter sent to all Catholic bishops — that called on Christians to act on climate change and serve as moral citizens of the planet. The announcement, which added a religious opinion to the debate that previously featured mostly scientific and political voices, led to considerable media attention and shifted American thinking on climate change, according to the researchers.

“We have so much going on in our daily lives and we’re bombarded by so much media that it really does help to have a public figure — or a knowable source — to help cut through and get our attention.”

— Jessica Myrick, associate professor of communications

In addition to shifts in opinions among Catholics, the researchers also found behavioral intentions shifted among Catholics based on reading a news article about the pope’s stance on climate change. Catholic Democrats would be more likely to take action on climate change when they read the article that featured the pope, while Catholic independents were less likely to take action, according to Myrick, who worked with Suzannah Evans Comfort, assistant professor of media, Indiana University.

While both sides of the debate on climate change, or other political issues, may hope a single messenger can lead people to switch opinions and behaviors, Myrick said it is unlikely such a public figure exists.

“There is no one message, or one messenger, that will shift everyone’s attitudes — and that’s probably a good thing,” said Myrick. “We have a marketplace of ideas with people from different worldviews and who have different experiences and who may view issues in different ways. What this study is reminding us is that we don’t fit neatly into demographic boxes.”

The researchers recruited 415 participants for the study from Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online task platform. The participants reviewed one of four randomly selected articles. The articles, which were taken from The New York Times, included a story about climate change featuring the pope; a climate change story without the pope; an article about poverty with the pope present in the article; and one about poverty that did not mention the pope.

Participants were asked to report their political identity. About half — 49.9 percent —identified as Democrat, 30.1 percent said they were Republican and 20 percent indicated they were independents. The researchers also asked the participants about their religious identity. About 15.4 percent of the participants identified as Catholic.

According to Myrick, political and religious affiliation are key identity cues for people, however they are not the only identity cues that shape responses to policy news. In the future, the researchers may look at how notions of elitism, populist sentiment and responsibility may color a person’s take on important issues, such as climate change.

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