The Rev. Billy Graham topped the list of most favorable religious leader in the nation, according to a new Barna report. But the evangelist fell well behind celebrities and other public figures who scored higher favorability with Americans.
The latest Barna research report evaluated American public opinion of 34 public figures from the fields of entertainment, politics and business and religion. Generating the highest favorability was actor Denzel Washington with 85 percent. Graham who was scored as most well-known among religious leaders only generated 64 percent of favorability.
Ahead of Graham were Oprah Winfrey (83 percent), Billy Gates (80 percent), Tim McGraw (72 percent), Faith Hill (71 percent), Mel Gibson (69 percent), George Clooney (67 percent) and Bill Clinton (64 percent).
The survey confirmed an earlier report that found most Americans unfamiliar with some of the nation's leading Christian ministers. Evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren was found to be unknown by 72 percent of the adult population and 63 percent among born again Christians. One of the most influential Christians and also once dubbed the next Billy Graham, Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House in Dallas was also largely unknown in both population segments.
According to Barna's most recent research, Pat Robertson was the only other religious figure besides Graham known to at least half of the population. The statistics were similar among born-again Christians. For Robertson, however, only 33 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of him and 25 percent had a negative one.
Still, Americans have a relatively high regard for religious leaders. On average, 74 percent of adults have a positive impression of the spiritual leaders whom they know.
The most negative opinions were directed toward such figures as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, President Bush, Rosie O'Donnell, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, respectively.
Some of the survey's surprising findings include Bono, U2's lead singer and prominent spokesman for the poor, being known to only half of all Americans; former president Carter has a strong positive-to-negative ratio with Americans today (4.5 to 1); 88 percent of Americans are aware of Gates and 80 percent have a high favorability of the Microsoft founder whose positive-to-negative ratio is 10:1; Graham's son Franklin is largely unknown to the general (76 percent) and born-again (62 percent) populations.
The youngest adults (18 to 39 years) have more negative opinions of Bush, Clinton, Chuck Colson and Billy Graham than those who are 40 and older. And they had significantly more positive impressions of Bono, O'Donnell and Trump.
Survey results led George Barna, director of the research, to conclude, "Recent studies have indicated that one of the most common goals among young Americans is to become famous. The wild popularity of reality TV shows and blogging are outgrowths of that urge. But let the buyer beware: fame is both a tough nut to crack, and an even tougher condition to master.
"After decades of public prominence, James Dobson is unknown to two out of three Americans. Although she has filled a trophy case with awards and graced the cover of numerous magazines and news reports, Patricia Heatons name is a mystery to three out of four adults. Rick Warren has sold more books than any other non-fiction title besides the Bible, but four out of five Americans have no idea who he is. Getting on top and maintaining a positive image once youre there is incredibly difficult in a fickle culture like ours. Just ask Billy Graham. For some reason, one out of every five people who are aware of him have a negative impression of the leader."
In regards to the born again population, Barna said, "The perceptions that born again adults have of public figures is nearly identical to that of people who are not born again. That suggests that their faith in Christ has little influence upon their decision-making, which explains why surveys find few distinctives in their lifestyle and values. Not only are most born again adults surprisingly oblivious to national religious leaders, but they apparently have the same perceptual filter as people who have not turned to Jesus Christ. If nothing else, this suggests that most born again adults are a work in progress, and that there is a lot of growth yet to experience in the renewing of their minds."
The survey was conducted in October 2006 and January 2007 and is based on interviews with 1,003 adults.