A study released by the Barna Group on Friday shows that the majority of Americans consider professional athletes more influential than faith leaders.
Of the 1,008 American adults surveyed by the research organization, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said professional athletes hold more sway on society than professional faith leaders. Only 19 percent said the opposite was true, while eight percent said the two groups share equal amounts of influence and another 10 percent were unsure.
Some athletes regularly speak about their faith in interviews, but only 32 percent of adults believe this kind of talk helps listeners become more spiritually-minded.
Of those who support public displays of faith from athletes, 40 percent say they do so primarily because they believe in freedom of speech. Only 10 percent of supporters say athletes should display their faith because such displays positively affect those who are listening.
"Americans are keenly aware of and concerned about maintaining religious liberty," David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, said in a statement. "Even if they didn't agree with or particularly care for an athlete's faith declarations, Americans would be hesitant to limit that person's ability to speak up about their faith."
Of those who said they don't like these public displays of faith, 45 percent said it was because players shouldn't force their faith on others and 21 percent said they should "just play the game."
Kinnaman says it is unclear if Americans would embrace an athlete who speaks out about having a faith other than Christianity. Muhammad Ali was the only non-Christian athlete who appears in the research, and only one percent of survey participants mentioned his connection to Islam in a "top-of-mind way," says Kinnaman.
Tim Tebow, an evangelical Christian, is by far the professional athlete most widely recognized for his faith. A total of 83 percent of Americans are aware of the New York Jets backup quarterback's public discussion of faith, of which 73 percent have favorable feelings toward.
"Most Americans are comfortable with a mash-up of their faith and their sports," said Kinnaman. "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 study also examined whether or not Americans were aware of public discussions of faith by six other well-known athletes, including retired NFL player Kurt Warner (59 percent awareness), Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin (40 percent) and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (34 percent).