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Why do so many people think Obama is a Muslim?

President Obama at a Washington church President Obama at a Washington church

President Obama at a Washington church

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan August 26, 2010

President Barack Obama has declared himself a Christian. He has worshipped in Christian churches, prayed with Christian ministers, and recounted how he knelt beneath a cross and felt God's spirit.

And yet, a surprising number of Americans keep telling pollsters they believe he's a Muslim.

The Pew Research Center last week reported that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. A Time magazine poll also released last week found even more — 24 percent — said he was a Muslim.

Dig deeply into the polls, however, and you see the roots of misunderstanding and some revealing patterns. Americans with the strongest dislike of the Democratic president and his policies are much more likely to say Obama is a Muslim. Pollsters say people's beliefs about his religion may actually be an effort to equate him with a faith they dislike.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has found that when people are fiercely partisan, they are less likely to change their minds when presented with factually correct evidence that contradicts their views.

Calling Obama a Muslim has "become a stand in for ‘I don't know who he really is,’" Nyhan said. "Part of it may just be people being down on Obama and attaching themselves to any label that is perceived as negative."

Not a Muslim; not Mohammed

PolitiFact has done extensive fact-checking on Obama's faith and has debunked false claims in chain e-mails that he attended a radical Islamic school, that his political rise mirrored a biblical tale about the Antichrist, and that he took the oath for U.S. Senate on a Koran. All three earned our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.

Our fact-checking also showed clear evidence that Obama is a Christian. According to the president's memoirs and independent biographies, Obama was not raised in any particular faith. He became a Christian when he was in his 20s while working as a community organizer in Chicago. Obama said the churches there impressed him with their commitment to social justice and the hope they gave to the poor.

"It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith," Obama said in a 2006 speech. "It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

The pastor of Trinity then was Jeremiah Wright, the minister from whom Obama distanced himself in the 2008 presidential campaign, after video of some of Wright's more controversial sermons were aired on television and the Internet. The break between the two men was over Wright's comments about American foreign policy and race relations, not tenets of Christian doctrine.

Several independent reports have documented Obama's church membership and faith life. "Along his Senate campaign trail (in 2004), Obama would never fail to carry his Christian Bible. He would place it right beside him, in the small compartment in the passenger side door of the SUV, so he could refer to it often," reported journalist David Mendell in his 2007 biography "Obama: From Promise to Power."

After the falling out with Wright, Obama said he intended to find a new church once the campaign was over. In office, though, Obama has not attended one church regularly. Instead, he has worshipped at various churches in the Washington, D.C., area, including the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, and St. John's Episcopal Church. He also has attended services at Camp David, the presidential retreat.

Obama regularly seeks spiritual guidance from a group of pastors and called them recently from Air Force One for a prayer session, according to an account in The Washington Post. Last week, when the Pew poll was released, presidential aides said Obama remains a practicing Christian and prays daily.

In April this year, Obama hosted an Easter prayer breakfast at the White House, and spoke of being inspired by Christ's resurrection, particularly in light of the human failings of selfishness and pride.

"It's not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption," Obama said. "But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope."

Obama's background

So why do so many people keep saying he's Muslim?

A benign explanation is that there is genuine confusion about his religion because Obama has Muslim ancestors on his father's side and a traditionally Muslim middle name, Hussein.

The evangelical pastor Franklin Graham mentioned that as a reason Aug. 19 on CNN: "He was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim; the seed of Muslim is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim; his father gave him an Islamic name."

Graham added that he did consider Obama to be a Christian today: "Now, it's obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't. So I just have to believe the president is what he has said."

According to family accounts, Obama's paternal grandfather Onyango Obama was Muslim. But it's not clear that his biological father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., ever practiced the religion. By all accounts, Obama's father was an atheist more interested in economics and government than religion. And the senior Obama had little influence on the future president; he abandoned his American wife, Ann Dunham, shortly after Obama's birth in 1961.

Dunham married again, to Lolo Soetero, an Indonesian man who was Muslim, and the family moved to Indonesia when Obama was 6 years old, where he attended a Muslim public school and a Catholic school at different times. Soetero was not particularly devout, according to his daughter and Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetero-Ng. She told biographer David Remnick that Soetero "never went to prayer services except for big communal events."

Obama described his upbringing this way: "My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I."

We looked into Graham's theory that Islam is "passed through the father." If Obama's ancestors were Muslim, would most Muslims consider Obama a Muslim as well? None of the experts nor reference books we consulted endorsed Graham's view as completely accurate.

It's true that in Muslim cultures, the children of Muslims are usually assumed to be Muslim themselves, and a few sources specifically mentioned the children of a Muslim father are considered Muslims.

But experts on the religion said that whether one is a Muslim or not depends on the belief in Muslim teaching and the following of its practices. Blain Auer, a professor of Islamic studies at Western Michigan University, said that the most prominent requirement is for believers to recite the shahadah, a statement of faith that affirms "I witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger."

"Franklin Graham's statement is incorrect. Islam is an act of faith, not a genetic disposition," Auer said via e-mail.

Given that Obama was born and raised in Hawaii -- not an Islamic culture -- Graham's statement gives a misleading impression. We rated his statement that "the seed of Muslim is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother" as Barely True.

Evidence of his Christianity doesn't sway his opponents

Whether or not there's legitimate confusion about Obama's ancestry, there's evidence that people are more likely to say they think Obama is a Muslim if they don't like his performance in office. In the Pew poll, the groups most likely to disagree with Obama politically were more likely to say he was a Muslim. Among those who disapproved of Obama's performance, the number who said he was a Muslim was 30 percent. Among Republicans, it was 31 percent. And among self-described conservative Republicans, the number was 34 percent, the highest of all demographic groups.

The pollsters at Time asked respondents if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of various religious groups, including Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Mormon. Respondents gave the Muslim religion the most negative ratings, with 43 percent saying they had a somewhat or very unfavorable view. (The rest of the unfavorables were Mormon, 29 percent; Catholic, 17 percent; Jewish, 13 percent; Protestant, 13 percent.)

The pollsters at Pew Research Center see both politics and religion at work, said John C. Green, a senior researcher at Pew. There's certainly a correlation between people who think he is a Muslim and people who rate him poorly for job performance. But there's also been a marked increase in the number of people who say they don't know what Obama's religion is. That number increased from 32 percent at the time of the election to 43 percent now.

That may be because the economy has been the main topic for political discussion this year, not religious matters, Green said. "Typically, the longer a president is in office, the more accurate the views of him become," Green said. "But there has been a lot less discussion of religion in the past year, and the president has talked less about religion. The economy has been the main topic."

Nyhan, the political scientist who has studied the phenomenon, has conducted several research experiments looking at how people respond to facts in political arguments. In 2008, he directed an experiment that asked participants their political views and what they thought Obama's religion was, then showed video of Obama discussing his Christianity, then asked the question again.

The evidence didn't always sway those who held the inaccurate view, though. In fact, in some cases it had the odd effect of making people even more likely to then believe Obama was a Muslim. Nyhan has found a similar effect in other experiments: It tends to happen most often when people have strong political opinions and are presented with evidence that contradicts that opinion. In other words, if people have strong views in the first place, they don't like to change their minds, even when confronted with evidence.

"If people don't want to accept the evidence, it's more likely to provoke rather than correct," Nyhan said. "It's really very hard to correct these things."

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Our Sources

Pew Research Center, Growing number of Americans say Obama is a muslim, Aug. 18, 2010

Time magazine, Americans’ views on the campaign, religion and the mosque controversy, Aug. 18, 2010

"Obama: From Promise to Power," by David Mendell, 2007
"The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,: by David Remnick, 2010

"Dreams from my Father," by Barack Obama, 1995

PolitiFact, Obama sworn in on his Bible, Dec. 20, 2007

The White House, Remarks by the President at Easter Prayer Breakfast, Aug. 6, 2010

Barack Obama campaign, Call to Renewal keynote address, June 28, 2006

The Associated Press,Obama family attends Easter services at Allen Chapel AME Church In Washington, D.C., April 4, 2010

Time magazine, No churchgoing Christmas for the first family, Dec. 23, 2009

The Washington Post, 19th St. Baptist's Glory: The Obamas, Jan. 19, 2009

Brendan Nyhan, New Pew poll: Obama Muslim myth on the rise, Aug. 19, 2010

The Boston Globe, How facts backfire, July 11, 2010

CNN, Interview with Franklin Graham, Aug. 19, 2010

"Islam: A Very Short Introduction," by Malise Ruthven, 1997

"Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think," by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, 2007

"America's Religions: From Their Origins to the 21st Century," by Peter W. Williams, Third Edition, 2008

"Islam: The Basics," by Colin Turner, 2006

Interview with Blain H. Auer, assistant professor of Islamic studies, Western Michigan University

Interview with Frederick Colby, associate professor of Islamic studies, University of Oregon

Interview with Ken Garden, assistant professor, Department of Religion, Tufts University

Interview with Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America.

Interview with Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

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