That’s not a rhetorical question, although the way some people have reacted to yesterday’s TIME and Pew polls about the percentage of Americans who think Obama is a Muslim, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took it as such. Sure, it’s possible that one-in-four (or five, depending on the poll) Americans actually believe in their hearts of hearts that Obama is a Muslim, despite the fact that he became a Christian in his twenties, has spoken during the presidential campaign and since about his Christian faith–even referencing his belief in “our risen Savior”–and attends Christian worship services. He is not, despite what Franklin Graham thinks, a Muslim who converted to Christianity. If anything, Obama was a secular agnostic by default who became a Christian once he reached adulthood and started thinking seriously about faith.
Still, it’s possible that one-quarter of Americans are choosing to ignore facts, evidence, and the president’s own profession of faith and that they firmly believe he is secretly Muslim. Possible. But I’m inclined to agree with Ben Smith and Cathy Grossman, who see something else going on in these poll results, namely that calling Obama a Muslim has become a way for some conservatives to express their distrust of and opposition to him. The idea that “Muslim” is being used as that kind of pejorative shorthand is a disturbing development on its own. But it does mean that the White House and Obama’s allies don’t necessarily need to launch into a campaign to educate those poor deluded Americans who have somehow gotten the mistaken impression that the president is a follower of Islam instead of Christianity.
Again, there is no doubt a not-insignificant percentage of the population that does continue to believe that Obama is lying about his faith. In three consecutive polls throughout 2008 and 2009, Pew researchers found that a pretty consistent 10-12% of respondents believed Obama was a Muslim. But then again, some people genuinely believed Jerry Falwell’s 1990s nonsense about Bill Clinton being involved in a cocaine-smuggling operation and ordering drug hits. So let’s say something more like 10% of Americans are conspiracy-minded. The other 10 to 15% are just willing to appropriate an entire religious tradition in order to malign a politician with whom they disagree.