But not only has that fact not gotten through to many Americans, the percentage of adults who believe he is a Muslim has now risen sharply after holding steady for two years, according to a new Pew poll out today. For my money, though, the real headline–and the news that should be causing heartburn over at the White House right now–is that the percentage of Americans who can correctly identify Obama’s religious faith as Christian has dropped by 14 points in the past year and a half. A plurality of Americans (43%) have no idea what religion he practices.
I’m going to repeat that because this is very unusual: a year and half after Obama moved into the White House, Americans are far less certain about who he is than they were during the campaign. That isn’t a good trend line for any political figure, but especially not the president. It may be appealing for an offbeat Hollywood actor or a reclusive writer to be seen as an enigma. But politics is a personal arena–voters like to feel that they can relate to a president or at the very least understand who he is. More dangerous for Obama is the fact that if a politician doesn’t define himself, his enemies are more than happy to do it for him. The Pew poll is evidence that the endless conservative media cycle of misinformation about Obama is working: of those respondents who identified Obama’s faith as Islam, 60% said they learned the “fact” from the media. (Note that the poll was conducted before Obama waded into the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy.)
Barely one-third (34%) of Americans can correctly identify Obama as a Christian, compared to more than half (51%) who could do so during the 2008 campaign. But that huge drop isn’t driven primarily by Fox News true believers. (Let me pause for a moment here to say that it is of course not a smear to call someone a Muslim. It is, however, obnoxious to say someone is a member of a religious faith when he’s not–and to insist that he is not a member of the tradition he does claim. It would also be foolish and naive to pretend that conservatives who call Obama a Muslim are doing it in a neutral way and that their intention is not to raise questions about his “otherness.”)
Consider this: Less than half of Democrats (41%) know Obama is a Christian, down from 55% in March 2009. Barely four-in-ten African-Americans say he’s a Christian, down from 56% last year. The percentage of moderate and liberal Republicans who say Obama is a Christian has dropped by 27 points, but it’s not because they’re all now convinced he’s a Muslim. Instead, the percentage who just don’t know his religion has risen 19 points. “What the numbers say,” says Alan Cooperman of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “is that there’s a lot of uncertainty and confusion about the president’s religion.”
Where is this confusion coming from? I asked Cooperman, who suggested this explanation: “Part of what’s going on here may be that there’s been a relative–especially compared to the previous president–absence of information from the president himself and from the White House about his personal religion and his practice of his personal faith. In the relative vacuum of information, suggestions from the president’s critics have been able to gain more currency and uncertainty is rising.” I think that’s about right. Given how frequently and personally Obama spoke about his Christian faith during the Democratic primaries and the 2008 general election, his relative silence since moving into the White House has been puzzling. (White House aides point out that he has spoken about his faith on six different occasions, but several of those remarks–including his prayer breakfast comments–have been stilted and pro forma, especially compared with his impressive 2006 address on religion and politics.)
It also hasn’t helped that the First Family does not attend a church in Washington, DC and that the White House rushed to shoot down a story I reported last summer that the Obamas had decided to follow George W. Bush’s lead and make the Camp David chapel their primary place of worship. (Even though Obama subsequently confirmed the story in several different venues.)
The obvious question from all of this is: Does it really matter that people don’t know what religion the president practices? After all, roughly half of Americans say that Obama relies on his religious beliefs (even if they don’t know what those are) the right amount, just as half said the same thing about Bush. Those who don’t know what Obama’s faith is appear to be divided evenly on the question of whether they approve of his job performance. And it seems pretty clear that disliking Obama makes you more likely to believe he’s a Muslim, not the other way around.
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.
Interestingly, Obama himself reflected on the danger of ceding the definition of one’s faith in the 2006 speech I cited earlier, berating himself for what he characterized as an inadequate response during the 2004 campaign to Alan Keyes’ charge that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.” Even so, the White House and the Democratic Party in general have ceded the field of religion to Republicans over the past two years, dismantling nearly all of the party’s religious outreach and relying solely on the White House faith-based office, which is legally prohibited from engaging in political outreach. When asked about these developments, Democratic officials insist that they plan on ramping up religious outreach for the 2012 campaign, but after three years of inaction, it’s hard to see how that will look like anything other than a cynical political maneuver.
I suppose you could call the White House’s complete lack of concern about Obama’s religious image admirable. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a crafty political adviser marching into the Oval Office and insisting: “Mr. President, I’m sorry, but we have to have you walking into a church every Sunday morning, preferably with a big Bible under your arm.” And in a perfect world, nobody would give a hoot whether the president went to church or said grace before meals or ever uttered one word publicly about his religious beliefs. But these 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.
One last note on another finding I found fascinating: Of those Americans who think Obama is a Muslim, nearly one-quarter (24%) told Pew pollsters they think he talks about his faith too much. Which is impossible, of course, because Obama is not a Muslim, so he’s spent exactly zero minutes talking about being one. What the result illustrates instead is how thoroughly those who oppose Obama are willing to read everything he says and does through a filter of distrust. Sixty percent of those who think Obama is a Muslim say they got that idea from the media. But interestingly, one-in-ten say they got it from Obama’s own behavior or words. They hear the Cairo speech or see the outreach to Muslim countries and assume, well of course, it’s because he’s Muslim. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t engage in the outreach–far from it. But it does make it even more important for the White House to offset those perceptions with a little more openness about the president’s real Christian faith.