Thursday, August 19, 2010

President Obama's religion: does your president's faith matter?

A Pew Research Center survey showed that nearly 20 percent of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim (he is not), and only one-third of Americans believe he is a Christian (he is).

Once upon a time, President Obama was criticized for his association with controversial Chicago Christian Pastor Jeremiah Wright (note: not a Muslim). Wright married the president and his wife Michelle and baptized their two daughters, but Obama later distanced himself from Wright when the pastor's aggressive, politically-charged sermons became political fodder.

After he won the election and moved to Washington, Obama admitted that, having learned a lesson from the Wright debacle, he hoped to worship privately:

"We were pretty affected by what happened at Trinity and the controversy surrounding Reverend Wright. That was deeply disturbing to us, and it was disappointing for us personally. It made us very sensitive to the fact that as president, the church we attend can end up being interpreted as speaking for us at all times."

Last October, the Washington Post's religion reporter at the time, Jacqueline L. Salmon, wrote a story about Obama's decision to worship privately at Camp David with Navy Chaplain Carey Cash. According to Salmon's reporting, "The White House declined to make Cash available for interviews, saying it wished to keep the president's religious worship at Camp David private."

The White House may be now regretting that decision to keep Obama's spiritual life out of the public eye.

Chris Cillizza Thursday reported, "Religion humanizes a president for many people, allows them to identify on a very basic level with the most powerful man in the world. For a president whose detractors have scored political points by painting him as aloof and uncaring, religion could be a bridge by which he connects to the average person. "

And in an age of Internet rumors and empowered bloggers, the Pew study shows that most Americans don't understand some basic facts of Obama's life, including his spirituality. Although President Bush also worshiped privately, the public expressed little doubt about the importance of his religious beliefs.

Do you care about your president's religious beliefs? Why do you think so many Americans believe (falsely) that Obama is Muslim? (See Colin Powell's important take on this question.) Why do you think that only one in three Americans know that President Obama is Christian?

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