As soon as the President returned from his Cairo trip this week, the Muslim rumors came out in full force. John Avlon on why 11 percent of Americans think Obama is Muslim. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
President Obama has publicly declared his Christian faith in front of church audiences and in Muslim countries. He’s quoted Christian scripture in his inaugural address and economic speeches. He devoted an entire chapter of his book The Audacity of Hope to explaining his faith and, by one recent count, he invokes Jesus Christ’s name more often than George W. Bush.
But a recent Pew Research Center poll shows that 11 percent of Americans still believe he is Muslim. What the hell is going on?
“Whether Mr. Obama actually is a Muslim or simply plays one in the presidency may, in the end, be irrelevant,” one conservative writer noted this week.
I decided to dig through the poll numbers. Sadly, most of the obvious stereotypes were confirmed. Republicans (17 percent) were more than twice as likely as Democrats (7 percent) to believe the Muslim myth. (The GOP number has remained steady since the last Pew poll back in October.) The less-educated a respondent, the more open they were to the suggestion: 14 percent of folks with only a high-school education thought the president was a Muslim, versus 6 percent of people who’d been to college. Nineteen percent of evangelical Protestants buy into the Muslim myth. And, for whatever reason, Texans seem easily duped: Before the election, 23 percent of said they thought Obama was a Muslim.
But there’s something deeper than simple stupidity going on here. There is a willful ignorance pumped up by partisan impulses. Witness, of course, how the president’s full name—Barack Hussein Obama—is invoked with sarcastic mock honor from Netroots conservatives. It has become the right-wing equivalent of 1960s liberals huffing over the specter of “Richard Milhous Nixon” in the White House, with religious bigotry added for good measure.
The undertone riffs off the “un-American” implications of the 2008 campaign directed at then-Sen. Obama. The fact that this alleged crypto-Muslim became president now raises the stakes considerably—can the commander in chief be fundamentally un-American? One way of resolving that conflict has been found by Orange County (Calif.) Pastor Wiley Drake, the former vice-presidential running mate of Alan Keyes, who refers to the president as “the usurper that is in the White House…B. Hussein Obama” and an “evil illegal alien,” before unapologetically announcing that he is praying for the president’s death.
Kansas Pastor Mark Holick takes a slightly different approach. He’s using the sign outside his church to warn passers by that “America, we have a Muslim president. This is a sin against the lord!” Ironically, this is placed above a line that proclaims that Holick’s is a “church without walls”—a notable exception, apparently, being the one between church and state.
When called on the hysterical lie that the sign promotes, Holick reaches for tortured logic. “The main point of the marquee is to cause Christians to understand he’s not a Christian… They call and tell me he’s not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. That’s not the point. The point is he’s not a Christian.” Huh.
The deeper truth of non-literal truth was also on the mind of Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, writing this week in an op-ed for The Washington Times. Gaffney argued that Obama is the first Muslim president in the same way that Bill Clinton was christened the first black president. (We’ll leave aside the fact that, for Clinton, the honorific, from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, was meant as a compliment.) Gaffney called out the president’s increasing identification as he set it out Islam in his Cairo speech. “The man now happy to have his Islamic-rooted middle name featured prominently has engaged in the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain over Czechoslovakia at Munich,” he wrote.
Among the Cairo speech’s alleged sins were four references to “The Holy Koran,” and details of Obama’s support for the two-state solution in Israel (a goal Bush also backed). You can have a legitimate policy debate by asking whether Obama’s attempted outreach to Muslim moderates creates the appearance of moral equivalence between Israel and hostile forces in the Middle East. But accusing the president of “aligning himself’ with the Muslim Brotherhood goes way too far, as does Mr. Gaffney’s leading conclusion: “Whether Mr. Obama actually is a Muslim or simply plays one in the presidency may, in the end, be irrelevant.”
This “just askin’…” approach to “Is Obama a Muslim?” is intended to feed on existing fears and pump up doubts under the cover of pugilistic partisan resistance (while giving those “asking” the question just enough distance). It’s compounded by the historic curiosity that America’s first new president elected after the attacks of September 11, 2001, is not only the first African-American but the descendent of a Muslim immigrant. President Obama’s campaign appeals explicitly transcended questions of identity politics, but even this gave rise to a thousand paranoid “Manchurian candidate” emails. Others have suggested that the Obama-is-Muslim myth is rooted in questions of patrimony rather than practicing religion—that if Obama’s father is Muslim that makes Obama a de facto Muslim via family tree.
But there is something fundamentally un-American in that analysis. Because it’s precisely these sort of tribal trappings that America was formed to transcend. We are not defined by our father’s successes or failures, let alone their ethnicity or religion. The idea of America depends on each individual being a free agent, an independent actor, choosing their own destiny and, in many cases, their own religion.
President Obama’s uniquely American story is the source of much of his political capital and moral authority at home and around the world. He updates the American dream for the age of globalization in indelible ways that forces even our enemies to recognize that our country is different; we can and do live up to our ideals. And those who stoke the fires of confusion about Obama’s religion are appealing to some of the worst instincts, not only in America but in humanity.
So repeat after me, from Orange County to Texas to Appalachia: President Obama is Christian.
And for the 1 percent of Americans who think that President Obama is Jewish, well, I’m not sure I can help you.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.