The Pew Research Center Survey Report showing more Americans than ever believe President Obama is a Muslim is disheartening, outraging, and confounding all at the same time. That headlines and banners yesterday read “Number of Americans Who Believe Obama is A Muslim Nearly Doubles” feels surreal—where do people get this information from?—and, for an idealist progressive like myself, stuck in time—why does it matter if he’s a Muslim, an atheist, or a Catholic? This is The 21st Century, gosh darn it.
Despite wishing we were at a point where Obama’s religion did not matter, I’m not naïve enough to actually believe we’re there. This week, with the debate over Park51 raging, the president’s role in that debate drawing praise and criticism, and Time magazine asking, “Is America Islamophobic?”, religion has come sharply into focus—Islam more sharply than any other faith.
Coverage of the survey numbers has been shrewd and sometimes exemplary, noting the trends, pondering how they came to be, and always pushing back against the false narrative they show people are consuming. The Times homes in on the president and his White House’s failure to define him, and offers this from a frazzled administration:
The White House says Mr. Obama prays daily, sometimes in person or over the telephone with a small circle of Christian pastors. One of them, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who was also a spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, telephoned a reporter on Wednesday, at the White House’s behest. He said he was surprised that the number of Americans who say Mr. Obama is Muslim is growing.
“I must say,” Mr. Caldwell said, “never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has a president confessed his faith in the Lord, and folks basically call him a liar.”
Chris Cillizza on The Fix looks at how Pew’s findings might play for Obama electorally.
Perhaps more important from an electoral perspective, however, is the growing number of people who don’t know what religion the President identifies with. While most Americans don’t tend to vote based on religious faith — although being either a Muslim or a Mormon can, among certain demographic groups, complicate a politician’s electoral calculus — they do like to believe that their president is a man of faith.
Religion humanizes a president for many people, allows them to identify on a very basic level with the most powerful man in the world. For a president whose detractors have scored political points by painting him as aloof and uncaring, religion could be a bridge by which he connects to the average person. The Pew poll suggests work still remains to be done in building that connection.
But for me, some of the most informed and informing analysis comes from Time senior editor Amy Sullivan, who writes formidably about religion and politics. She first asks if it matters that people don’t know what religion the president practices (it shouldn’t), before arguing that it does—uncertainty creates the vacuum into which false information is poured.
Yet it does matter, because a president—especially a Democratic president—cannot afford to let his enemies define his character and his beliefs. John Kerry made this point in a fascinating post-campaign speech at Pepperdine University in 2006 that he intended partly as a caution to his Democratic colleagues:
“There will always be those bent on corrupting our political discourse, particularly where religion is involved. But I learned how important it is to make certain people have a deeper understanding of the values that shape me and the faith that sustains me. Despite this New Englanders’ past reticence of talking publicly about my faith, I learned that if I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me. I will never let that happen again — and neither should you, because no matter your party, your ideology, or your faith, we are all done a disservice when the debate is reduced to ugly and untrue caricatures.”
Sullivan then writes:
…Pew results suggest that nearly two years after Americans elected Obama, they know less about him than they did when he was a presidential candidate still making his way onto their radar. Forget the question of what that means for 2012—it’s already a problem for a leader who wants to connect with the country.
The Pew report is bad for Obama, worse for the media, revealing of the survey takers, and disheartening for those reading the results. But there is something even ickier about this story than the fact that the public is increasingly misinformed. That is the implication that the being Muslim is implicitly bad.