Pope Francis’ popularity has taken a hit in the United States, especially among political conservatives, a new Gallup survey revealed Wednesday.
The pontiff’s favorability rating among Americans has dropped from 76 percent in February 2014 to 59 percent this month, according to Gallup. The decline returned Francis close to the 58 percent favorability rating registered in April 2013, soon after he was elected pope.
Simultaneously, his unfavorable numbers have increased from 9 percent in 2014 to 16 percent this month. The number of Americans who have never heard of or have no opinion of Pope Francis jumped from 16 percent in February 2014 to 25 percent this month.
The slide in Francis’ popularity comes ahead of his first visit to the United States in September. He’s scheduled to visit Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C. where he’ll become the first pope to address a joint session of Congress.
The swoon in Francis’ popularity is almost across the board, but the biggest drop comes among conservatives. Among that group, 45 percent said they view Francis favorably, down sharply from 72 percent in 2014. His favorable image among liberals tanked from 82 percent in 2014 to 68 percent this month. The pope’s favorability among moderates saw the smallest decline – from 79 percent last year to 71 percent this month.
Francis has alienated many conservatives last month by issuing an environmental encyclical in which he called for changes in human behavior to combat climate change. Many conservatives question the existence of global warming.
"I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, told reporters after Francis’ encyclical was issued. "But I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope."
Bush, who’s Catholic, added that religion "ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm."
The pontiff also drew criticism from some Republicans for his role in talks between the U.S. and Cuba that put the Cold War enemies on a path toward normalized relations.
The Cuban embassy reopened earlier this month after more than 50 years of severed ties between Havana and Washington. Shortly after President Barack Obama announced the Cuba deal in December, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a practicing Catholic and 2016 Republican White House contender, criticized the pope.
"I would also ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people, for a people to truly be free," he told reporters.
Still, Francis’ current percent favorability among Americans is higher than his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013 after an eight-year papacy. But it’s lower than Pope John Paul II, who averaged a 72 percent favorability rating throughout his 27-year tenure at the Vatican.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect month for Pope Francis’ U.S. visit. He arrives in September.