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'Pope Francis promotes a highly positive image of Roman Catholic Church online'

30 November 2023
Religious leaders such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama present themselves on Instagram as charismatic celebrities, paying little to no attention to conflicts and scandals. This is revealed in the research conducted by Theo Zijderveld, who analyzed the Instagram accounts of four world-famous religious leaders: Deepak Chopra, a writer of spiritual books; Brian Houston, the founder of the evangelical megachurch Hillsong, Pope Francis, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Zijderveld concludes that the four are building a 'brand' of their own persona on Instagram, portraying themselves as authentic and inspiring figures—akin to religious lifestyle coaches. In doing so, they rely on values such as freedom and independence. "It seems that religious authority is no longer solely dependent on institutional and religious traditions."

Interaction is crucial, similar to brands: religious leaders strive to post content that resonates with their followers, showcasing their best selves. For instance, a photo of Brian Houston in his swimsuit with his granddaughter on his shoulders illustrates how physically fit he is, according to Zijderveld. It shows that he is not afraid to reveal his private life and that he has a close relationship with his grandchildren. "This reinforces his image as a warm, authentic, and approachable father figure of Hillsong Church."

Despite presenting themselves as the embodiment of their movement or institution, religious leaders, according to Zijderveld, do not address power structures, conflicts, or scandals. The Pope, according to his Instagram account, is portrayed as a popular, charismatic, and humble leader who has positively transformed the church. "The account promotes a very positive and highly selective image of the Roman Catholic Church as a warm and inclusive church for all believers," says the researcher. "It obscures aspects that do not align with this carefully crafted myth." Hot-button issues within the Vatican, such as abuse, abortion, or contraception, are not found on the account. The same applies to complex political issues surrounding the Dalai Lama and internal conflicts and scandals involving Brian Houston: the darker sides remain unaddressed.

Different styles
All four leaders position themselves as celebrities by sharing photos of large crowds, public and media appearances, and international travels. They all present themselves as charismatic, but they use different styles. Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, both representatives of ancient religious traditions, share images of traditional clothing, buildings, and rituals, alongside photos of large crowds and intimate encounters between the leader and followers. Deepak Chopra and Brian Houston emphasize success, prosperity, and health—values that, according to Zijderveld, "seamlessly align with the current consumer culture."

When asked whether digitization is a positive development for religious leaders, Zijderveld does not provide a clear answer. According to him, the use of Instagram can theoretically be very successful for positioning religious leaders. At the same time, religious leaders must navigate between religious values and traditional structures on one hand and the culture of authenticity and an 'attractive lifestyle' on the other. "This creates paradoxes for which there is no ready-made solution."