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Resurrecting Questions about The Passion of the Christ

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

August 30, 2004

Survey Data Counters Claims of Massive Public Influence

In the six months since its premiere, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has grossed more than $370 million in the U.S., making The Passion the second top grossing movie of 2004, trailing only Shrek 2. This week, the DVD and VHS versions of the film will be released. Distributor Twentieth Century Fox reportedly may ship as many as 15 million copies to retailers.

The Passion has been the subject of considerable controversy, with speculation focused on the film’s impact on mass audiences. Detailing the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life with emotionally powerful and exceedingly violent imagery, The Passion sparked concern that the film might provoke widespread anti-Semitism. Gibson, who stands to pocket as much as $400 million from the movie’s global earnings, depicts the Jewish high priest Caiaphas as leading an angry, bloodthirsty mob, and the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate as a sympathetic executioner.

As Newsweek summarized in a February 16 cover story, The Passion raises “important historical issues about how Gibson chose to portray the Jewish people and the Romans. To take the film’s account of the Passion literally will give most audiences a misleading picture of what probably happened in those epochal hours so long ago. The Jewish priests and their followers are the villains, demanding the death of Jesus again and again; Pilate is a malleable governor forced into handing down the death sentence.”

Despite the film’s graphic violence, stereotypical portrayal of Jews, and R-rating, many alternatively hoped that The Passion would serve as a powerful recruiting and mobilizing tool for Christian evangelicals. Churches rented out theaters for special screenings, held “educational” meetings about the film, and bused in congregants to cineplexes. Premiering on Ash Wednesday, The Passion was billed as a family event for the religious season, grossing $83 million over the extended weekend. On Easter, four weeks after the film’s premiere, The Passion moved back to the top of the weekend box office, earning $17 million over the three day period. Churches have placed advanced orders of the DVD in bulk, complete with the option to purchase slipcovers imprinted with the name of their congregation or a two-line message of their choice.

“I don’t know of anything since the Billy Graham crusades that has had the potential of touching so many lives,” Morris H. Chapman, president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The New York Times on February 5. “It’s like the Lord somehow laid in our lap something that could be a great catalyst for spiritual awakening in this nation.” Newsweek reported that the Rev. Graham considers The Passion “a lifetime of sermons in one movie.”

A number of national surveys conducted since the release of the film have attempted to gauge the public impact of The Passion. In this column I review the available poll data, with an eye towards evaluating claims and assumptions about the movie’s influence.

How Engaged was the Public with The Passion?

A little more than a week after The Passion's Feb. 25 premiere, a Gallup survey taken March 5-7 indicated that 11% of Americans had already seen the movie, 34% eventually planned to see it in the movie theater, 31% planned to see it on DVD or VHS, and 23% said they did not plan to see the film. (Among the roughly quarter of respondents who said they did not plan to see the film, 37% said it was because of the amount of violence, and 33% because they do not watch movies.)

A Pew survey taken two weeks later (March 17-21) indicated that 19% of the public had seen The Passion of the Christ at least once, an estimate confirmed by a Greenberg Quinlin & Rosner Research poll taken the same week (21%). According to the Pew poll, white evangelical Protestants (25%), black evangelical Protestants (30%), Hispanics (28%), and Americans age eighteen to thirty-four (23%) were the most likely to report seeing The Passion.

By the last week of May (three months after the release of the film), a survey by The Barna Group found that nearly one out of every three adults (31%) in the country claimed to have seen the movie at least once. Although at first this figure might seem high, the number is considerably less than the proportion of Americans who reported seeing other blockbusters such as Finding Nemo (57%), Pirates of the Caribbean (45%), and Bruce Almighty (42%). As the Barna Group notes, however, each of these other films had the benefit of increasing their audience size via video and DVD rentals.

According to the Barna data, 53% of the audience for the film were “born again Christians,” compared to 38% of the adult U.S. population who are born again. Based on these sample proportions, Barna estimates that 36 million who saw the film were born again, and 31 million who saw the film were not. (The Barna Group defines born again as people who say they have made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.)

In the Gallup survey taken March 5-7, 61% of the public said that the religious content of the movie was the major reason they had seen or planned to see The Passion, compared to 17% who said it was a minor reason, and 21% who said it was not a reason. When asked about the publicity that The Passion had received, 31% of the public said it was a major reason they had seen or planned to see the film, versus 32% who said it was a minor reason, and 36% who said it was not a reason. In terms of the celebrity draw of Mel Gibson, 18% said it was a major reason they had seen or planned to see the film, compared to 31% who said it was a minor reason, and 50% who said it was not a reason.

As I outlined in my previous column on the possible public impact of The Day After Tomorrow, beyond any direct viewing effects, films also likely influence audiences indirectly through news coverage. Part of The Passion's success was its stunning public relations coup, generating several weeks of saturation coverage across hard news and infotainment outlets. Journalists and media producers often claim that their choice of events to cover simply reflect what their audiences demand, but decades of research suggests otherwise. The media agenda most often leads the public’s agenda, with audiences following closely those issues that receive the heaviest coverage.

Given the agenda-setting influence of the news media, it is not surprising that the public’s level of attention to The Passion was disproportionate to its relative “real world” importance. Three weeks after the release of the film, 37% of the public, according to the Pew survey, indicated that they were following news coverage of the Passion of the Christ “very closely.” As many people were following news coverage of the film as were following the 2004 presidential race (35%), and the terrorist bombings in Spain (34%). More people were paying attention to news of the movie than were following closely the issue of gay marriage (29%), the Martha Stewart trial (18%), and the unrest in Haiti (15%). Only the war in Iraq (47%) and the high price of gasoline (47%) captured greater public attention.

Did The Passion Shape Beliefs and Behavior?

In considering the question of whether or not The Passion of the Christ shaped public beliefs and behaviors, social scientists have long agreed that three criteria must be satisfied for demonstrating causality. First, there must be co-variation between two variables or events, i.e. viewing The Passion of the Christ is related to some variation in beliefs or behaviors. Second, there must be temporal order established between the two variables or events of interest, in this case viewing The Passion must be shown to precede some change in belief or behavior. Third, confounding or third variable influences such as age, gender, education, or ethnicity must be eliminated as possible causal factors that may be producing the observed relationship between viewing The Passion and any changes in beliefs or behavior.

Unfortunately, the available survey data is cross-sectional in nature, eliminating the possibility of satisfying the time order criteria. As I discussed in my previous column evaluating the public impact of The Day After Tomorrow, a better study would involve a panel survey design where respondents could be interviewed before the release of The Passion, and then the same respondents would be interviewed at subsequent points in time, with changes in behavior and beliefs compared across those respondents who had seen the film, and those who had not. Because of the uncertainty of cross-sectional data, it is not surprising that the available evidence is somewhat mixed relative to the film’s influence on public beliefs and behavior.

The Gallup survey, for example, asked respondents if “after seeing the film was your faith strengthened or were you repelled by the violence?” (74% answered faith strengthened.) Similarly, Gallup asked “did seeing the movie strengthen your religious faith?” (78% yes). Related, Gallup also asked “did seeing the movie give you a new understanding of what your religious faith is about?” (64% yes).

However, when probing more specifically about changes in religious beliefs or practices, the Barna data reflect a far less profound influence for The Passion. When asked if the film had affected their religious beliefs in anyway, 16% said it had. When asked specifically what these shifts might have been, roughly 3% of the aggregate audience for the film indicated each of the following: 1) a shift in the perceived importance of how they treat others; 2) becoming more concerned about the effects of their life choices and personal behavior; and 3) gaining a deeper understanding of, or appreciation for, what Christ had done for them through his death and resurrection.

As the Barna report notes, despite heavy speculation that the film would serve as a conversion tool for Evangelicals, less than one-tenth of one percent of respondents who had seen the film said that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content. Nor did the film apparently promote evangelicalism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.

Much of the speculation about The Passion's influence stemmed from the assumption that audiences would accept the film’s depiction of the events leading up to Christ’s death as an accurate and true representation of history. In anticipation of the release of the film, a Newsweek survey asked “Do you believe that the Bible’s accounts of Jesus Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion portrayed in The Passion of the Christ are literally true, or are not literally true?” Among the 50% of the survey’s respondents who had seen, heard, or read anything about the movie, 24% answered “yes, literally true,” compared to 14% who answered “No, not literally true.” The majority indicated they didn’t know (62%).

Although the Pew survey employed a cross-sectional design, the authors of the survey included items that share roughly identical question wording with a 1997 survey taken by ABC News that measured public belief in Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and that Jews’ were responsible for Jesus’ death. Similarity in question wording across the two surveys allows for cautious inferences regarding any observed changes in opinion occurring between the two data points, with The Passion of the Christ a major intervening event.

The Pew data reflects no statistically significant changes between 1997 and 2004 in terms of public belief that Jesus rose from the dead (84% in 1997; 83% in 2004), and that Jesus died on the cross (91% in 1997; 92% in 2004). However, there was a modest but statistically significant shift in belief that the Jews were responsible for Christ’s death (19% in 1997; 26% in 2004). Could The Passion be responsible for the change?

Among people who reported seeing the movie, 36% believed that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death. However, as the Pew report notes, this trend might simply be characteristic of the segment of the public drawn to see the movie in the first place. According to the Pew data, among respondents indicating that they had not seen the film, but said they planned to see The Passion, 29% indicated a belief that the Jews were responsible, compared to just 17% of those who answered they had no plans to see the film.

The Pew survey asked respondents specifically “Were the Jews responsible for Christ’s death?” The chosen question wording is important, notes the Pew report, since other surveys employing slightly different phrasing find that only a tiny minority of the public believes that Jews today should bear responsibility for what happened to Christ 2000 years ago. An ABC News/PrimeTime poll, released Feb. 15, found that just 8% think that “all Jews today” bear responsibility for the death of Jesus, compared with 80% who reject that view.

Conclusion: Reinforcement, not Conversion

What can be concluded after comparing the initial speculation and fears about the public impact of The Passion of the Christ with the far less alarming inferences gleaned from public opinion data? First, The Passion likely served to strengthen religious convictions among the already religiously committed, especially among white and black evangelicals. Among these evangelicals, repetitive viewing of the The Passion probably temporarily bolstered and helped renegotiate an already strong sense of Christian identity and community, for a short time elevating the salience and symbolic importance of religious values in daily life.

Second, what can’t be determined from the existing survey data is how Evangelical political elites have been able to piggy back on the movie, using the event as a symbolic tool for mobilizing church goers around various social issues. The Passion afforded evangelical leaders, whether at the bully pulpit or on Christian public affairs programming such as The 700 Club, the opportunity to manufacture sermons, news coverage, and commentary that framed discussion of contemporary politics and social issues in a format that reinforced and emphasized evangelical interpretations, a frame magnified by drawing powerful connections to the perceived moral lessons of the film.

Third, the available survey data, unfortunately, is only specific to adult populations. The influence of The Passion is likely to have been magnified among the many children and teens who saw the film. What influence did The Passion have on the religious socialization, emotions, and behaviors of younger audiences? Do children and teens have the same type of background knowledge and understanding that may inoculate many adults against the The Passion's strong condemnation of Jews? The Passion's impact on young audiences merits greater attention and concern.

Important to remember, however, is that among adults, the available data show that attitudes and beliefs were not likely to have been created anew by the film, nor did The Passion serve as a conversion tool. Rather, the movie likely helped amplify and strengthen pre-existing beliefs among evangelical viewers.

Similar influences were found in one of the earliest studies of the effects of religious programming on audiences, a study that remains one of the most comprehensive projects on the topic to date. In the early 1980s, the emergence of the “electronic church” in the form of nationally and locally broadcast televangelist ministries was charged with contributing to an erosion in membership and attendance at mainline churches, a decline in financial contributions, and a decline in overall religious participation. A committee of thirty mainline and independent church groups commissioned a two-year research project on religion and television. The final report, based on national and regional surveys, and a content study of religious programming, determined that there was little basis for the allegation that the new electronic church was undermining traditional church participation and religious values.

Viewers of religious programs were no less likely than non-viewers to attend, contribute to, and participate in local church activities. In fact, religious television viewing tended to strengthen the beliefs, moral teachings, and political views of evangelical and mainline Protestants. In contrast, nonreligious commercial television, with only a few exceptions, had opposite effects, “mainstreaming” viewers towards more moderate religious, social, and political views.

According to the study, viewers were lured to religious television by a deep dissatisfaction with the “prevailing moral climate,” a desire and self-expressed need for “having [their] spirits lifted,” and for “feeling closer to God.” Religious television viewing was positively related to reading the bible. Moreover, viewers of religious television were much more likely to report having had a “religious experience,” and were more likely to consider evangelicalism and missionary work the main goal of the church, rather than more traditional social justice goals (For more see Gerbner, Gross, Hoover, Morgan, et al., 1984).

Twenty years later, evangelicals have successfully established a multibillion dollar “rival public sphere” comprised of religious news media, books, videos, feature films, Web sites, radio, and recorded music. Almost every aspect of popular culture has an evangelical alternative available to the devout consumer. The Passion of the Christ, along with the fictional Left Behind series, the top selling books of the past decade, are the leading icons of this new evangelical public sphere. Unfortunately, there is a relative absence of empirical studies dedicated to examining the functions and effects of these new religious media on audience attitudes, opinions, and behavior.

References

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.