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19 months in, a few Americans think Obama is Muslim, but nearly half don't know what he is [Updated]

August 19, 2010 |  2:48 am

President Barack Obama speaks in an Alabama church

It's interesting, certainly timely and politically potent that a small but growing number of Americans believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim, even before his controversial recent support of a new mosque near New York's ground zero.


FOR THE RECORD:
Correction, added at 6 p.m.: A previous version of this post said that since President Obama’s break with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his Trinity United Church, the president has been unaffiliated with any specific faith. In fact, he remains a Christian.

Update, added at 1:12 p.m.: In an effort to tamp down all the public speculation about the president's religious faith, White House spokesman Bill Burton tells reporters traveling on Obama's current vacation: "The president is obviously a Christian. He prays every day."


A small fraction of Americans -- 18% -- mistakenly think Obama is Muslim, although that's up from 11% early last year, according to the telephone poll of 3,003 random adults from July 21-Aug. 5.

But buried within the very same poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is an historically more striking finding:

Nearly four years after he entered the nation's political scene in a significant way and nearly 19 months after he took the oath of office before many millions of excited witnesses, nearly half of Barack Obama's countrymen are unaware of what religion their president is.

From annual reports they know about his blood pressure, cholesterol levels, his income tax statements, fondness for pies and even his unhealthy private smoking habit.

But a plurality of Americans -- 43% -- currently say they do not know his religious faith. That number is....

 

...up from 34% in just one year. Despite "In God We Trust" all over U.S. money and "God bless America" at the end of most political speeches, legal separation of church and state is an honored tradition in these United States. News photos of presidents exiting church, often carrying a Bible, were once a Sabbath staple, as they regularly are during the seemingly eBill and Hillary Clinton walk to church during his presidencyndless American presidential campaigns when candidates frequently address the congregation.

The same rule, however, does not apply to separation of church and politics. Most Americans have traditionally expected their politicians at least to pretend to be religious as a sign of possessing personal values and character, despite regular hypocrisies and moral offenses.

A president couldn't be Roman Catholic until John F. Kennedy in 1961. And we may soon see if U.S. voters are as ready to accept a Mormon in the nation's top elective office as they were an African American in 2008. Even divorce was a bar to office for the first 39 presidents until Ronald Reagan in 1981.

So what religion is Obama and why the confusion?

Until the 2008 Democratic primary season and his reluctant but very public break with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who married Obama and baptized his daughters, Obama was a 20-year member of Chicago's Trinity United Church. He said he was unfamiliar with Wright's racist and anti-Semitic sermons, which showed up on numerous widely-viewed videotapes.

Aides have since described Obama's religious faith as "Christian," although only 34% of poll respondents knew that, down from 48% just 60 days into his presidency.

Since the Wright break, Obama has been unaffiliated with any specific congregation, like only three previous presidents in U.S. history -- Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson and his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.

(Speaking of religion in the White House, according to Adherents.com, the most numerous presidential religion has been Episcopalian (11), including No. 1 George Washington and No. 41 George H.W. Bush, and Presbyterian (10). And can you name both Quakers? Answer at the bottom.)

Additionally, President Obama has publicly worshiped only sporadically, which may contribute to confusion over his religion and the poll's finding that 43% see the Democrat's decision-making as not very reliant on religious beliefs, while only 28% said that of George W. Bush (Methodist) in 2004.

Upon election, Obama said he and his family would join a Washington church; they have visited some. But joined none. Aides once claimed that was out of concern for inconveniencing other congregants, who have always gone through security screening when any president was in attendance.President George Bush and wife Laura leaving church

A major rule of politics is to define yourself before others do it for you, likely in less sympathetic ways. Because through inattention or indifference Obama hasn't portrayed himself by public action in one faith, the vacuum has been filled by ignorance, rumor and/or suspicion.

The confusion could also be due in part to Obama's Muslim-sounding middle name of Hussein, having a Muslim father from Kenya and living much of his early childhood in Muslim Indonesia with his Indonesian stepfather and Kansas mother.

Obama has also made much of his diplomatic outreach to the Islamic world, including numerous White House messages, diplomatic gestures and an unusual trip to Egypt to address the Muslim world in June of 2009. (See full text below.)

Another factor could be a combination of popular culture and political partisanship. For many years the typical bad guys of American popular culture were Nazis. But especially since 9/11, the bad guys have often become Arabs. And as opposition has grown to Obama and his policies, so too have widely e-mailed and professed, albeit undocumented, online suspicions not just about his unreleased birth certificate but about his goals, alleged socialist ideals and possible anti-American or Arab allegiances.

Last week the president issued a special Ramadan message, as his White House often does on other religions' holidays and anniversaries.

But the already-embattled Democrat then took the occasion of a White House Iftar dinner to inexplicably insert himself into the emotional New York mosque controversy by intellectually supporting its construction right there as a matter of religious freedom, regardless of any sensitivities over the nearby 9/11 deaths of nearly 3,000 people at the hands of radical suicidal Islamists. (See stories and text in Related Items below.)

Wednesday the president professed "no regrets" over his unsolicited statement. However, a new Gallup Poll released soon after found that mosque stance driving Obama's public approval down to 41%, the lowest of his presidency. Historically, a presidential approval under 50% augurs severe losses among his party's congressional members in ensuing midterm elections, which come in just 72 days.

Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress since the 2006 election with overwhelming majorities since January 2009. In 1994 in the first midterm elections of the presidency of Bill Clinton (Baptist), unhappy voters handed Republicans control of both houses after 40 years of minority status.

Related Items:

In White House Iftar dinner speech, Obama supports ground zero mosque--text

9/11 families and GOP leaders criticize Obama's mosque support

Barack Obama issues special Ramadan message to the Muslim world

What Barack Hussein Obama told the Muslim world in Cairo speech

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Linda Stelter / Associated Press; Associated Press (The Clintons and Bushes attending church during their presidencies).

The two Quaker presidents were Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover.

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