On Barack Obama’s Religion

Wasn’t it P.T. Barnum who said that “You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public?” That’s how I felt this morning, when I heard NPR’s story on a just-released Pew Research poll that indicates that a growing percentage of Americans — now 1 in 5 — believe that President Obama is, in spite of all the facts otherwise, a Muslim.

In total, only a third of the poll respondents stated that they believed that Obama was a Christian: “President Obama calls himself a Christian,” said NPR host Linda Wertheimer, with a hint of doubt in her voice. “We all remember the controversy over his pastor in Chicago during the campaign. But the number of people who identify him as Christian is declining from about half to about a third.” Said Andrew Kohut of Pew Research:

In any event, the critical – I think the real critical issue from the perspective of the broad public is that – this falling recognition of what his religion is. Even Democrats are less of the view that he’s a Christian – that declined from 55 to 44 percent – and more of a view that, hey, I don’t know what religion the president is, from 32 to 41 percent over the course of a year.

On the one hand — as an atheist who firmly believes that there should be no religious test to hold public office — I ask myself, “What does it matter how people perceive the President’s religion? How the President chooses to express his religious faith is between him and his god.” On the other hand — as an atheist who recognizes that, for good or ill, the American public wants a President of a religious bent, but also a President of a religious bent of which they approve (in other words, neither atheist nor Muslim need apply) — I find it profoundly dangerous, and not just for political reasons, that two-thirds of the American public can be so willfully ignorant of basic facts.

Yes, basic facts. The NPR story is one of the few that I’ve seen that actually mentioned the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy of the 2008 primary season. Here’s a news report, two years old now, about Obama’s churchgoing in Chicago. A website devoted to atheism analyzes Obama’s beliefs, which while somewhat diverse, still fall within the Christian realm. There shouldn’t be any question.

The Guardian posits a few reasons for why the public could be ignorant of the President’s faith:

Conspiracy theories about Obama’s faith have dogged him since his presidential campaign, in part fuelled by his middle name – Hussein – and because he attended a school in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country.

However, the rising doubts among less hostile sections of the population may be driven by the fact that Obama has not worn his religion on his sleeve. He has not adopted a church in Washington and is not seen to regularly attend church services.

Whether the President attends church services in Washington is his choice and no one else’s. And, again, as an idealist, I don’t think it’s something that should matter to anyone.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. And Alan Cooperman, a Pew associate, points out in that same Guardian article: “[A] number of those surveyed in the poll who said the president is a Muslim do not believe it and were using it as a means to express their dislike of him. A Time magazine poll shows that one in four believe that Muslim citizens are not patriotic Americans. The same poll revealed that an even higher proportion say Muslims should not be permitted to sit on the supreme court or become president. Cooperman said that calling Obama a Muslim is a way of saying that ‘he’s other, he’s not one of us.'” Which feeds into the Republican narrative, promulgated by Senator John Cornyn, that the President is “disconnected from the mainstream of America.” And religion, as the Right so often likes to tell us, is part of the American social fabric. :-/

But it’s not America’s religious xenophobia that bothers me today.

No, it’s the ignorance of the American public that troubles me deeply. It’s the complicity of the media in keeping the American people uninformed. I noted above that one of the great controversies of the Presidential campaign — the Reverend Wright incident — which spoke directly to the President’s religion has, in the coverage of the Pew Research poll, gone almost completely unremarked. One clear, unambiguous fact that any person with even a fleeting grasp on politics should be aware of that goes completely to the story at hand… and it goes unmentioned.

I almost think that the media wants the American public to be stupid. Here is a teachable moment, here is a moment where the world needs knowledge, and it passes. The media fails us all.

Barack Obama is clearly not a Muslim. Barack Obama is also clearly not an atheist like his mother was. He is not a Kdaptist or a Neo-Pagan. Nor is he a follower of the Kryptonian deity Rao or the Prophets of the Celestial Temple. From all the available evidence, there should be absolutely positively zero doubt that he is a Christian of some stripe. A Christian private in his practice, but a Christian nonetheless.

Why should this even be in doubt?

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