The recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is generating much discussion over its provocative finding that an increasing number of Americans (nearly one in five) believe that President Obama is a Muslim. The survey was completed before Obama’s recent comments endorsing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero.
While this no doubt is a fascinating development, consuming most media coverage of the poll, and unprecedented in presidential history, the figure of greater interest to me—and not surprising—is the percentage of Americans unsure about whether Obama is a Christian, or, more generally, about his faith at all.
“[T]he proportion saying [Obama] is a Christian has declined,” reports Pew. “More than a year and a half into his presidency, a plurality of the public says they do not know what religion Obama follows.” Pew added: “Only about one-third of adults (34 percent) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48 percent in 2009. Fully 43 percent say they do not know what Obama’s religion is.”
This confusion is not confined to Republicans. Pew notes: “fewer Democrats today say he is a Christian (down nine points since 2009).”
The numbers among Democrats are telling. Indeed, it’s easy for Obama defenders to lash out at this data as allegedly reflective of narrow-minded anti-Obama conservatives. In truth, there is confusion about what Obama believes because, in fact, there is—rightly so—confusion about what Obama believes.
I say this as someone who studies faith and politics, and who has written books on the faith of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton—books that hit upon the faith of just about every president.
For the record, in one of those books—the 2007 one on Hillary Clinton, who I described as a “lifelong, committed Christian”—I wrote briefly about an emerging political dynamo named Barack Obama. “Obama is a Christian,” I reportedly confidently, seeing no reason to say otherwise.
As November 2008 approached, I wrote similar things, though acknowledging the growing uncertainty about Obama’s beliefs. I recall speaking at a church near Pittsburgh where one liberal couple practically jumped out of their seats when I dared mention a June 2008 Newsweek poll that found 12 percent of Americans believed Obama is a Muslim.
Those perceptions, already evident then, have only intensified. And for those Obama supporters enraged by this, please try to understand the legitimate confusion, including for someone like myself who carefully studies these things:
Generally, when it comes to faith, Americans accept whatever self-designation offered by a president, especially as his background leaves little doubt. President Jimmy Carter called himself a “born-again” Baptist from Plains, Ga., which the record easily supported. President Woodrow Wilson referred to himself as a Presbyterian in the “Reformed” tradition, and a mere cursory examination revealed precisely that.
Sometimes, we dig deeper. My experience in the case of Ronald Reagan is especially relevant now, as I’m being cited by liberals who point to Reagan’s infrequent church attendance as support for their insistence that Obama’s infrequent church attendance doesn’t mean he lacks faith. (Ironically, in the 1980s, it was liberals who questioned whether the president was really a Christian.) That comparison, however, is misplaced, for reasons that underscore the questions about Obama. Consider:
Reagan attended church his entire life, from the First Christian Church on S. Hennepin Avenue in Dixon, Ill. in the 1920s, to churches in Iowa in the 1930s, to varying churches in California from the 1940s through the 1970s, and again after his presidency. As a new president, he immediately began attending the National Presbyterian Church, present for all but one or two services prior to when he was shot by John Hinckley. I interviewed the pastor of that church, the Rev. Louis Evans, at length, plus other witnesses. Reagan’s attendance declined only after the assassination attempt. He cited security reasons, and the record supported his explanation. Beyond that, Reagan’s personal life, family background, writings, speeches, and much more, revealed a deep, pervasive Christian faith throughout his entire life.
For President Obama, a similar evidentiary record does not exist. Unlike Reagan, Obama was not raised by an intensely pious mother, nor was there an extremely influential pastor in his adolescent years. As noted by an excellent Newsweek piece during the campaign, Obama was reared by a “Christian-turned-secular mother”—herself a product of “two lapsed Christian” parents—and was the son of a “Muslim-turned-atheist African father” and a stepfather with a “unique brand of Islam.”
As Obama himself candidly admits, he meandered his way through Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, asceticism, with, along the way, smatterings of Augustine, Graham Greene, and Nietzsche, just for starters.
Amazingly, the only Christian church to which Obama could have been considered a consistent member was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church. And if we are to believe the disclaimers of Obama and his supporters, he rarely attended Wright’s services, and even more rarely listened or paid attention.
Likewise, Michelle and the girls have not attended church regularly, if ever. Newsweek reported a remarkable fact for a major presidential candidate who would win the presidency: “Obama is a little spiritually rootless again.”
Our puzzling president
All of this, from rare church attendance to the lack of other conventional displays of faith, has persisted well into Obama’s presidency. Think about the oddity of this one fact alone: The current president has neither a church, nor, to my knowledge, even a denomination. When I’m asked questions about his faith, by sincere people not looking to attack, I sincerely can’t give a good answer. It’s a problem I didn’t have with any of the Bushes, the Clintons, Reagan, Carter, and on and on.
In short, and I don’t mean this to be disparaging, with Barack Obama we are witnessing the most unconventional faith profile of a president in arguably 200 years. The assessment we’re getting from a curious public is not a crass misperception by a bunch of intolerants, but, rather, natural puzzlement.
Of course, it shouldn’t be difficult to rectify misperceptions. Throughout American history, presidents have been asked about their faith and sat for lengthy interviews sharing their thinking, explaining precisely what they believe. Why doesn’t Obama simply do the same? This isn’t rocket science.
Will some people still not believe him? Of course. But Obama’s problem isn’t a tiny fringe that believes he faces Mecca to pray five times a day, but an increasingly large number of Americans that aren’t sure what he believes. Until he makes that clearer, confusion will understandably reign.
[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in USA Today.]