Over bagels and pastries earlier this month, President Barack H. Obama finally convinced this country that he is not a Muslim. Or at least he tried.
“My Christian faith has been sustaining for me over the last couple of years,” Obama noted in an unusually personal speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. “Even more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time.” He also detailed his transformation into a born-again Christian, and mentioned his Christian spiritual mentors, including a young minister who “starts my morning off with meditations from scripture.”
The National Prayer Breakfast has been a prime networking event in Washington since the Eisenhower administration. Presidents don’t normally go for the gusto at these meetings: Obama, for example, has previously used these breakfasts to stress such controversial topics as the healing power of world religions and the necessity of bipartisan “civility” in the wake of Haiti.
This year’s breakfast, however, came on the heels of a Pew poll in August demonstrating that 18 percent of Americans believe that our president is a Muslim. This misconception flourishes on the right, with a 14 percent increase among Republicans in calling the president a Muslim since 2009. A minister who was consulted on Obama’s breakfast speech noted that he and the White House were caught off-guard by the Pew poll, and affirmed the speech’s necessity in correcting this misconception. "He needs to openly declare himself a Christian and not settle for people's skepticism” the minister told CNN. Michael Scherer echoed this sentiment on Time Magazine’s Swampland blog, asserting that Obama’s speech was “a signal to the Republican field” that the President “will not allow others to define his own beliefs for him.”
But how necessary are Obama’s attempts to spread the Gospel of his Christian faith? And how effective will they actually be?
Although the media made lots of hay over the infamous “Muslim President” Pew poll this past summer, 18 percent is actually a very low number when it comes to baseless beliefs in this country. As Matthew G. Yglesias ’03 noted on his blog, according to a Gallup poll from 2005, more than twice as many Americans who believe that the President is secretly a Muslim believe that houses can be haunted. That same poll indicates that a quarter of this country believes in astrology, and 21 percent believe that people can communicate mentally with the deceased. In fact, approximately the same number of Americans who believe that the president is a closet Muslim also believe that witches exist. Given the preponderance of absurd beliefs in the United States, should it really bother Obama that under one fifth of Americans consider him a follower of the Prophet?
Furthermore, those on the right who truly think that Obama is a Muslim won’t be swayed by official assurances that he isn’t. Consider the birther movement. More than two full years into Obama’s presidency, this movement is still as politically vibrant as ever—a poll released last week revealed that a majority of Republican primary voters believe that Obama was not born in this country. This is despite all of the evidence available dating back to the genesis of this smear during the 2008 elections, including Obama’s actual Hawaiian birth certificate, viewable online, and two separate major Hawaiian newspapers documenting Obama’s birth on August 4, 1961.
Indeed, the persistence of anti-Obama conspiracy theories may reflect something far more psychological than informational. The Pew Research Center notes that “those who say [the president] is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing.” A Newsweek article from August corroborates this finding by citing a political psychology experiment designed by a team from Michigan State University. The article concludes by citing the head researcher: “When people are unsatisfied with the president, whether it’s the way he’s handling the economy, health care, Afghanistan,” he says, “our research suggests that this only fuels their readiness to accept untrue rumors.” Indeed, the article notes, it is no coincidence that the prevalence of belief in Obama’s Islamic faith has increased in “inverse lockstep” with the president’s job approval rating.
In an interview last week, Sarah Palin refudiated those who deny Obama’s citizenship and Christianity. “The faith, the birth certificate, others can engage in that kind of conversation,” she said. “Those are distractions” from “what really matters,” which is “the economy” and “policies coming out of [the president’s] administration.” Obama should listen to her. If the president truly wants to squash those untrue rumors about his faith, he needs to pay attention to the issues and focus his efforts on getting his approval rating up. Because if Obama actually thinks that his breakfast speech will convince naysayers of his Christianity, the man doesn’t have a prayer.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.