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Poll: High marks for Pope Francis, but liberals and conservatives split on pontiff

Andrew Medichini / AP file

File: Pope Francis delivers his blessing on Oct. 2.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans have a positive impression of Pope Francis while just five percent view him negatively, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.  That is among the best scores for any public figure and certainly better than most, if not all, current American politicians and political parties.  Pope Francis was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year"Wednesday morning.

Inside those poll numbers though, liberals and conservatives are split on the newly installed Catholic pontiff who has shaken up some traditions of the papal hierarchy and taken an approach that favors compassion over doctrine.

In a new mission statement, Pope Francis insisted that the Church reform itself and pay more attention to the poor, and also wrote the Church must abandon its complacent attitude that says "we have always done it this way." NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Self-described liberals, Democrats, and Obama voters are driving the bulk of his popularity in the U.S. They view this pope more positively than conservatives, Republicans, Romney voters, and Tea Party supporters.

Francis, who has eschewed the elaborate trappings of the Vatican and called for greater acceptance of gays and atheists, gets a 64 percent positive rating from liberals. He gets a similar 64 percent from Democrats and 69 percent from Obama voters.

On the other hand, conservatives give him a lower 45 percent favorable rating, Republicans give him 50 percent, and Tea Party supporters 48 percent. And nine percent of Tea Party supporters view him negatively. That's the most of any of the six groups polled.

Francis has rankled some traditionalists and conservatives for his call that the church be more inclusive. In September, he said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.

The Pope is making headlines once again for his candid interview with "America Magazine," where he said the Church must not be obsessed with issues related to gay marriage or contraceptives. He called for new balance, warning that if the Catholic Church doesn't make changes, it could fall like a house of cards. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

On gay priests, Francis told reporters, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” That's a big departure from his predecessor, who called being gay a “strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

From 80s teen actor Kirk Cameron (who balked at the pope's outreach to an atheist writer) to Catholic bishop taking perceived public swipes at the pontiff's message, there's no shortage of papal skepticism.

Conservatives like Sarah Palin – the failed Republican vice-presidential nominee and Tea Party darling – said she’s been “surprised” and taken “aback” by statements from Francis that sound "kind of liberal.” She later apologized.

And the more-tepid support from conservatives could be one reason Francis is not quite as popular yet as the late-Pope John Paul II.

In 1998, 65 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of John Paul II, though he had held the position for 20 years at that point.

But Francis, the Argentine-born former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is better liked than Benedict XVI. Benedict received just a 30 percent positive rating in the February NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Back then, the Democratic coalition was among the Vatican's biggest detractors.

Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected to lead the Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. 

Francis is also viewed in better light than the Catholic Church itself, which gets a 36 percent positive rating and a 17 percent negative rating.

That's an improvement from the 31 percent positive/26 percent negative rating in February, before Francis was installed. In fact, by a 41 percent to 3 percent margin, Americans say Francis’ actions have given them a better impression of the church; 35 percent say they have made no difference.

Interestingly, American Catholics also view this pope more positively than the church itself. Catholics give Francis a 76 percent positive rating versus 62 percent for the church.

Non-Catholics also have a far more favorable impression of Francis than the Catholic Church. Half of Protestants (50 percent) and those of other religions (52 percent) view him positively.

But they are much less favorable toward the Catholic Church – with Protestants saying they have just a 32 percent positive/13 percent negative view of the church, and those in other religions with a more negative 23 percent positive/31 percent negative view.