Study: Americans Say Pro Athletes Have More Influence on Society than Faith Leaders

The Story: A new study from the Barna Group finds that most Americans believe sports figures have a greater influence than do professional clergy or other faith leaders.

The Background: By more than a three-to-one margin, Americans believe professional sports players have more influence on society than do faith leaders. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think pro athletes have more influence in American society today than do professional faith leaders (19%). Others say both (8%) have equal influence or are not sure (10%).

Sports figures are deemed most influential by those making $60,000-plus, college graduates, and parents. Those most likely to select faith leaders were weekly church attenders and those with incomes under $40,000.
The research points out that “most Americans are comfortable with a mash-up of their faith and their sports,” suggests David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “That there’s such a strong and positive awareness of Tim Tebow and his faith reveals Americans—and particularly Christians—desire for an authentic role model who is willing to so publicly connect his faith and life.”

The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the study include:

• 61% of adults support professional and prominent college athletes talking about their faith in media or events seen by the general public.

• Those most favorable toward public expressions of faith are Boomers (66%), parents of children under the age of 18 (66%), evangelicals (88%), and African Americans (79%).

• Women are more supportive of public expressions of faith by athletes than are men (65% versus 56%).

• Among atheists and agnostics, 34% favor athletes being able to talk about their faith in media or public events.

• One-third of adults (32%) contend these kinds of public displays of faith by athletes make their hearers more spiritually minded. Women, residents of the South, evangelicals, and church attenders are among the most likely to believe this.

• Americans who favor public displays of faith in sports say they do so primarily because they believe athletes should have freedom of speech (40%).

• Among those who oppose sports figures talking about their faith publicly, the most frequently mentioned reason for resisting this behavior is feeling that faith should be kept personal and that it’s not appropriate to force one’s beliefs on others (45%).

• 51% of Americans mentioned Tebow as linking religion and sports. The next closest players are Kurt Warner (2%) and Jeremy Lin (2%).