Barack Obama is a Muslim?
Surely these accusations sound familiar–they found their way in to the 2008 presidential campaign, with fingers pointed in both directions (at the Democrats during the primary, and at the Republicans during the general election). But given Barack Obama’s unabashed insistence that he has only a minimal connection to Islam in his family tree, as well as the very public controversy of his Christian church (see Wright, Jeremiah), how is it that such an absurd notion persists?
Let’s start with the facts. Back in March of 2008, the Pew Center polled a very simple question: “What is Barack Obama’s religion?” Back in ’08, here’s how it broke down. 47% identified him as a Christian, 12% identified him as a Muslim, 36% said they don’t know, and another 5% either refused to answer or picked “other.”
Now, fast forward to 2010. 34% now identify him as a Christian, 18% as a Muslim, and 43% don’t know. That’s a 13% drop for Christianity, a 6% increase for Islam, and a 7% increase for those who say they don’t know. The increase in the “don’t knows” suggests that the problem isn’t one of exposure; Barack Obama is arguably the most visible figure in the world today, and surely there is an even greater public understanding of his biography than there was during the 2008 primaries. So why is such a significant portion of our population (roughly 1 in 5) insistent that Barack Obama is a Muslim?
It’s impossible to enter the hearts and minds of that mysterious one in five, but a host of hypotheses could be advanced to explain why that 20% doesn’t truly believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, at least in any meaningful, intelligent way.
First, general disapproval of Obama is on the rise. Real Clear Politics has his average approval rating at 46% (that’s down from the mid 60s he enjoyed in January of 2009). Respondents to polls like this one may simply be venting their dissatisfaction with the president. It’s obvious that responding “Muslim” is the answer the president doesn’t want you to hear. Consider it one tiny little way to slap President Obama in the face.
Second, the polls could be capturing specific disapproval of Obama’s posture toward Muslims worldwide. It’s hard to deny there has been a lot of bowing to monarchs and flowery, gratuitous deference to the Islamic world. Making nice around the world is one thing, but many Americans believe Obama has been far too quick to appoint himself as Apologist in Chief, and never misses an opportunity to denigrate the legacy of a nation that most Americans still recognize as a great force for good. The people in this camp don’t really believe Obama is a Muslim, they’re more likely to argue “he might as well be one, given how he’s acting.”
Third, this explanation is the least likely to explain where that 20% of the country is coming from, but it’s the most interesting so we’ll throw it in anyway. Why do so many people think Barack Obama is a Muslim? Because by some readings of Islamic teaching, technically, he is. In antiquity, religions had all sorts of formal rules for determining who qualifies as a member. Some of these rules still hold water in certain circles, though most are seen as an artifact of the past. In traditional Judaism, you are regarded as a Jew if your mother was jewish. In traditional Islam, it’s the opposite–you’re a Muslim if your father was a muslim.
Barack Obama is not just a product of an ethnically mixed union, he’s the product of a religiously mixed union as well. Though it seems Obama’s father wasn’t particularly fervent in any religious beliefs, he was ostensibly a Muslim. Among some Muslims, that would qualify Barack Obama as a Muslim himself, albeit an apostate. Is that what some of those 20% are thinking? Most likely not, but it’s worth mentioning for the interest factor alone.
What is equally compelling about the most recent Pew findings on Obama’s religion is the increase in people who say they don’t know what Obama’s religious leanings are. My gut instinct is that many evangelicals dissatisfied with the President’s relative exclusion of christianity in his pulpit explain the drop. It’s clear that Obama does not have evangelical leanings; he’s not quick to drop Jesus Christ at every opportunity, and he’s far more comfortable invoking the vague providential language of deism when he makes a comment about faith. That’s likely to ruffle more than a few feathers among those who believe one’s Christian-ness can only be measured by how frequently one utters the word “Christ.”
Irrespective of what exactly is behind the increase in the number of people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, the finding should be politically troubling for the Democrats. Rightly or wrongly, we’re still a heavily religious nation that believes some form of Christian faith is a prerequisite to the highest office. Among the growing numbers of people who believe Obama is a Muslim, or they simply don’t know what his religion is, the president is unlikely to find much support.
Pew Research Center. “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim.” http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1701/poll-obama-muslim-christian-church-out-of-politics-political-leaders-religious. Accessed 8/23/2010.
Real Clear Politics. President Obama Job Approval. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/president_obama_job_approval-1044.html. Accessed 8/23/2010.