A substantial and growing number of Americans say that Barack Obama is a Muslim, while the proportion saying he is a Christian has declined. More than a year and a half into his presidency, a plurality of the public says they do not know what religion Obama follows.
A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama’s religion is. The survey was completed in early August, before Obama’s recent comments about the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center.
The view that Obama is a Muslim is more widespread among his political opponents than among his backers. Roughly a third of conservative Republicans (34%) say Obama is a Muslim, as do 30% of those who disapprove of Obama’s job performance. But even among many of his supporters and allies, less than half now say Obama is a Christian. Among Democrats, for instance, 46% say Obama is a Christian, down from 55% in March 2009.
The belief that Obama is a Muslim has increased most sharply among Republicans (up 14 points since 2009), especially conservative Republicans (up 16 points). But the number of independents who say Obama is a Muslim has also increased significantly (up eight points). There has been little change in the number of Democrats who say Obama is a Muslim, but fewer Democrats today say he is a Christian (down nine points since 2009).
John Hinderaker at Powerline:
The Pew poll, as reported by the Associated Press, finds confusion about Obama’s most basic beliefs:
Americans increasingly are convinced — incorrectly — that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, and a growing number are thoroughly confused about his religion.
I love that “incorrectly.” The AP has evolved into an opinion machine, so it’s rare and a little startling to see it stand up so boldly for a “fact.” He’s not a Muslim, dammit!
More on the poll data:
Nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009, according to a poll released Thursday. The proportion who correctly say he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent.
The largest share of people, 43 percent, said they don’t know his religion, an increase from the 34 percent who said that in early 2009. …
In a separate poll by Time magazine/ABT SRBI conducted Monday and Tuesday — after Obama’s comments about the mosque — 24 percent said they think he is Muslim, 47 percent said they think he is Christian and 24 percent didn’t know or didn’t respond.
So, what is going on here? First, we are seeing fallout from the Jeremiah Wright affair. I would never presume to pass judgment on Obama’s spiritual life. But one thing I will say with confidence: Jeremiah Wright is no Christian. His ideology of hate disqualifies him. So many millions of Americans, learning that Wright was Obama’s spiritual mentor, must have wondered where Obama himself was coming from. I think that is the main source of confusion, coupled with Obama’s lack of connection to any identifiable Christian tradition.
The second factor, I think, is Obama’s effort to project a post-American, above-America persona. Obama postures as a citizen of the world who has graced America by condescending to be our President and to instruct us. Some liberals accept this posturing gratefully, but most Americans don’t. Obama has defined himself as literally exotic. Small wonder that some Americans attribute exotic qualities to him. We’re not sure who he is, exactly, but he certainly isn’t one of us. Given the currents that swirl through world events these days, being a Muslim is one interpretation of Obama’s exoticism. Those who construe Obama in this way may well be wrong, but it is not hard to understand why they interpret his aloof non-Americanism in this way.
David Weigel on Hinderaker:
That’s some analysis, isn’t it? “Being a Muslim is one interpretation of Obama’s exoticism.” Of course: the Muslims who live in this country are un-American. Those Muslims who supported the War in Iraq? Probably un-American, just very, very sneaky. Muslims who donate to the GOP? Softening us up for the takeover, probably. Those Muslims who died on 9/11? Let’s assume they were plants. To be American is to agree with John Hinderaker; to disagree is to be a Muslim.
I’m remembering what Sarah Palin said about the “mosque” that got liberals so angry: “peace-seeking Muslims, please understand, ground zero mosque is unnecessary provocation.” Implicit in that statement is the belief that there are “peace-seeking Muslims.” We’re learning about a lot of people who won’t go that far. They view Muslims the way that the czars used to view the Jews.
Adam Serwer at The American Prospect:
Hinderaker is mad that the AP isn’t reporting as fact an interpretation of a feeling that some conservatives have about “the currents that swirl through world events.” Feel free to snap your fingers when you’re done reading. As Dave Weigel writes, “To be American is to agree with John Hinderaker; to disagree is to be a Muslim.”
Still, I think on some level, Hinderaker is right. Some conservatives see Obama as being different from them, and they deploy “Muslim” as an epithet to express their suspicion and anger toward him. I’m sure part of it also has to do with conservative elites reinforcing or at least winking at the notion that Obama is being deceptive about his religious beliefs and that describing someone as a “Muslim” is some kind of an insult. As the Pew poll notes, “Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing.” In a less politically correct time they probably would have used a different word.
Amy Sullivan at Swampland at Time:
I’m going to repeat that because this is very unusual: a year and half after Obama moved into the White House, Americans are far less certain about who he is than they were during the campaign. That isn’t a good trend line for any political figure, but especially not the president. It may be appealing for an offbeat Hollywood actor or a reclusive writer to be seen as an enigma. But politics is a personal arena–voters like to feel that they can relate to a president or at the very least understand who he is. More dangerous for Obama is the fact that if a politician doesn’t define himself, his enemies are more than happy to do it for him. The Pew poll is evidence that the endless conservative media cycle of misinformation about Obama is working: of those respondents who identified Obama’s faith as Islam, 60% said they learned the “fact” from the media. (Note that the poll was conducted before Obama waded into the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy.)
Barely one-third (34%) of Americans can correctly identify Obama as a Christian, compared to more than half (51%) who could do so during the 2008 campaign. But that huge drop isn’t driven primarily by Fox News true believers. (Let me pause for a moment here to say that it is of course not a smear to call someone a Muslim. It is, however, obnoxious to say someone is a member of a religious faith when he’s not–and to insist that he is not a member of the tradition he does claim. It would also be foolish and naive to pretend that conservatives who call Obama a Muslim are doing it in a neutral way and that their intention is not to raise questions about his “otherness.”)
Consider this: Less than half of Democrats (41%) know Obama is a Christian, down from 55% in March 2009. Barely four-in-ten African-Americans say he’s a Christian, down from 56% last year. The percentage of moderate and liberal Republicans who say Obama is a Christian has dropped by 27 points, but it’s not because they’re all now convinced he’s a Muslim. Instead, the percentage who just don’t know his religion has risen 19 points. “What the numbers say,” says Alan Cooperman of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “is that there’s a lot of uncertainty and confusion about the president’s religion.”
Where is this confusion coming from? I asked Cooperman, who suggested this explanation: “Part of what’s going on here may be that there’s been a relative–especially compared to the previous president–absence of information from the president himself and from the White House about his personal religion and his practice of his personal faith. In the relative vacuum of information, suggestions from the president’s critics have been able to gain more currency and uncertainty is rising.” I think that’s about right. Given how frequently and personally Obama spoke about his Christian faith during the Democratic primaries and the 2008 general election, his relative silence since moving into the White House has been puzzling. (White House aides point out that he has spoken about his faith on six different occasions, but several of those remarks–including his prayer breakfast comments–have been stilted and pro forma, especially compared with his impressive 2006 address on religion and politics.)
It also hasn’t helped that the First Family does not attend a church in Washington, DC and that the White House rushed to shoot down a story I reported last summer that the Obamas had decided to follow George W. Bush’s lead and make the Camp David chapel their primary place of worship. (Even though Obama subsequently confirmed the story in several different venues.)
The obvious question from all of this is: Does it really matter that people don’t know what religion the president practices? After all, roughly half of Americans say that Obama relies on his religious beliefs (even if they don’t know what those are) the right amount, just as half said the same thing about Bush. Those who don’t know what Obama’s faith is appear to be divided evenly on the question of whether they approve of his job performance. And it seems pretty clear that disliking Obama makes you more likely to believe he’s a Muslim, not the other way around.
One last note on another finding I found fascinating: Of those Americans who think Obama is a Muslim, nearly one-quarter (24%) told Pew pollsters they think he talks about his faith too much. Which is impossible, of course, because Obama is not a Muslim, so he’s spent exactly zero minutes talking about being one. What the result illustrates instead is how thoroughly those who oppose Obama are willing to read everything he says and does through a filter of distrust. Sixty percent of those who think Obama is a Muslim say they got that idea from the media. But interestingly, one-in-ten say they got it from Obama’s own behavior or words. They hear the Cairo speech or see the outreach to Muslim countries and assume, well of course, it’s because he’s Muslim. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t engage in the outreach–far from it. But it does make it even more important for the White House to offset those perceptions with a little more openness about the president’s real Christian faith.
John McCormack at The Weekly Standard on Amy Sullivan:
Of course, Sullivan doesn’t point to any “conservative media” oulets that have pushed the claim Obama’s a Muslim in the past year. “The Emergence of President Obama’s Muslim Roots” was the title of an ABC News blog post from June 2009. Though the report was (unfairly) attacked by the left, it was actually a smart report on how Team Obama had shifted, in advance of the president’s visit to Cairo, from minimizing to touting Obama’s experiences in the Muslim world and with Muslim family members:
During a conference call in preparation for President Obama’s trip to Cairo, Egypt, where he will address the Muslim world, deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough said “the President himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to — or before he’s been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world — you know, growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father — obviously Muslim Americans (are) a key part of Illinois and Chicago.”
Given widespread unease and prejudice against Muslims among Americans, especially in the wake of 9/11, the Obama campaign was perhaps understandably very sensitive during the primaries and general election to downplay the candidate’s Muslim roots.
The candidate was even offended when referred to by his initials “BHO,” because he considered the use of his middle name, “Hussein,” an attempt to frighten voters.
So maybe Obama’s embrace of his non-religious experiences with Islam helped cause this seven-point jump. Or perhaps, as Ben Smith speculates: “telling a pollster that Obama is a Muslim is just another way of expressing disapproval.” Or maybe more people think Obama’s a Muslim because he doesn’t go to church and doesn’t talk about Jesus like he did on the campaign trail, as Time‘s Sullivan reasonably observes later in her blog post.Whatever the reason for the uptick in this poll and confusion in general about Obama’s religion, it doesn’t seem to be a sign that “a lot of people” in America “view Muslims the way that the czars used to view the Jews,” as Slate blogger David Weigel writes.
We can find examples of stupid or at least ignorant voters who believe that it’s true and who voted or will vote against Barack Obama solely because they think he’s a “secret Muslim.”It’s a vile smear for two reasons.
The first, of course, is because it’s untrue.
The second reason, though, is more subtle.
In the end, there’s no difference between suggesting Barack Obama is a Muslim and calling into question the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, or the Catholic faith of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and, before, him, Al Smith, who likely lost the 1928 Presidential Election because of his Catholic faith. Of course, Romney is a Mormon and Kennedy and Smith were Catholic, but the sentiment is exactly the same — those who continue to spread the Obama is a Muslim lie do so on the assumption, if not the hope, that people will excerise religious prejudice toward Obama because they think he’s a Muslim.
It’s religious intolerance, pure and simple. It’s the same form of idiocy demonstrated by a Republican Congressman from Virginia who went insane over exploited like a bigoted demagogue the fact that America’s first Muslim Congressman wanted to take his oath of office on the Koran.
And, it’s a far cry from the wise words of Sage of Monticello:
[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
By spreading the Obama-is-a-Muslim lie, people are saying that a person’s religion should disqualify them per se from public office.
Quite honestly, I can’t think of anything more un-American.
John Pitney at The Corner:
As Ross Douthat pointed out several weeks ago, these findings should not surprise anyone. Surveys have long reported that Americans “don’t know . . . basic facts about their country and the world.” Up to ten percent of the public is unaware that Hawaii is part of the United States — perhaps these same folks heard that the president was born in Honolulu and drew their own conclusions.
But the administration is pushing back. According to the New York Times, a Christian pastor telephoned a reporter at the behest of the White House and declared, “I must say, never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has apresident confessed his faith in the Lord, and folks basically call him a liar.”
The pastor is mistaken. In 1984, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro said that President Reagan “walks around calling himself a good Christian but I don’t for one minute believe it, because the policies are so terribly unfair.”
UPDATE: John Dickerson at Slate
UPDATE #2: Ann Coulter at Townhall
David Kopel on Coulter