The Enduring Obama Muslim Rumors

Obama has to overcome several problems in defining his religious beliefs.

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Video: A Matter of Faith

Is Barack Obama a Muslim? It seems very clear that he is not. He has called himself a Christian for many years and for two decades was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, before ending his membership during the 2008 campaign in protest of the inflammatory racial remarks of his pastor. Trinity is a Congregationalist denomination of mainstream Protestantism.

So it came as a surprise last month when the Pew Research Center found that 18 percent of Americans, or nearly 1 in 5, think Obama is a Muslim, an increase from 11 percent in March 2009. This was not an isolated finding. A recent Time magazine poll found that even more Americans, 24 percent, think that Obama is a Muslim. Reflecting the partisan divide, 1 in 3 conservative Republicans say Obama is a Muslim, according to Pew. Only one-third of Americans know he is a Christian, down from 48 percent last year, and 43 percent say they don't know what Obama's religion is.

White House officials and Obama strategists are more than a little troubled by this misunderstanding. Some think it may derive at least in part from willful ignorance on the part of Obama haters. These critics want to believe what they consider the worst about Obama, such as that he wasn't really born in the United States and isn't qualified to be president. That, in addition to his alleged commitment to Islam, is nonsense.

But these misapprehensions aren't new. Many Americans believed Thomas Jefferson was an atheist, which was untrue. Many thought Abraham Lincoln was Catholic, a despised minority in many places in the 1860s. Also untrue. Some thought Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish. Likewise, false. Of course, there was plenty of anxiety over John F. Kennedy's Catholicism in his 1960 campaign, so much so that he felt compelled to make a speech declaring that his faith wouldn't interfere with his policy decisions. After he was elected, other concerns dominated the nation's agenda and the Catholic "issue" faded.

For the record, 11 presidents were Episcopalian, including Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, James Monroe, James Madison, and George Washington, according to Pew. Eight were Presbyterian, including Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, and Andrew Jackson. Four were Baptist—Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman, and Warren Harding. Three presidents were unaffiliated with a specific religion—Jefferson, Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson. Kennedy was the only Catholic president.

Obama has had several problems in defining his religious beliefs. His father and namesake was brought up a Muslim but didn't practice his faith (and, in any case, abandoned the family when Obama was a young boy, so his direct influence on his son was minimal). Obama spent much of his childhood in a Muslim country, Indonesia, and attended a Muslim-dominated school, all of which may account for some suspicions. As president, he has been reaching out to the Islamic world, which some of his critics don't like. And, most recently, he has supported the right of American Muslims to build a controversial cultural center and mosque near ground zero in New York (although he said he would prefer that the sponsors voluntarily pick a different location).

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons on the so-called "ground zero mosque" controversy.]

Obama rarely attends services, unlike his predecessors Bush and Clinton, who made at least periodic visits to church on Sundays. White House spokesman Bill Burton recently told reporters: "The president is obviously a Christian. He prays every day." But there is scant public evidence that he really practices any organized religion at all. And he rarely talks about his faith, unlike Bush, who used the rhetoric of born-again Christianity in his speeches and public comments. And Bush's repeated declaration that freedom is a gift from God to all of humanity invested one of his guiding policy ideas with spiritual meaning.

None of this means that Obama is a Muslim. He actually seems to be more of a secular leader than anything else. But it all points up a paradox. Obama has been one of the most visible figures in the world for more than 19 months, with the media covering him exhaustively. But still there are huge misunderstandings about him. It shows that the White House has a long way to go, not only in explaining his policies but in clarifying his values.