The "M-Word" as smear

Two new polls say that one in four respondents believe that President Obama is a Muslim. This, combined with the current flap over a proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, raises the question: is calling someone Muslim a code for saying "I don't like you?"

RNS reports:

Asked in a Time magazine poll whether the president is a Muslim or a Christian, 24 percent of respondents said Muslim, and 47 percent said Christian.

A separate Pew poll released Thursday (Aug. 19) found that 18 percent of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim. A full 43 percent of Americans—across lines of race, political party and religion—don’t know what faith he follows.

Perhaps most strikingly, the number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim has increased over the last 18 months, while fewer believe that he’s a Christian. The percentage of Americans who could identify Obama as a Christian has dropped from 48 percent to 34 percent, according to the Pew poll.

Experts pointed to a number of possible explanations, but one quickly rose to the top: The candidate who discovered Christian faith in a Chicago black church has rarely been seen leaving the White House for Sunday services.

Cathy Lynn Grossman blogs at USA Today's Faith and Reason:

Jeffrey Weiss, blogging at Politics Daily, called up Jason Reifler, a political science professor at Georgia State University who co-authored a paper on "The Effects of Semantics and Social Desirability in Correcting the Obama Muslim Myth."
Reifler offered a possible explanation for the growing number of people who say Obama is Muslim: It's code for "I don't like Obama." Some of them, he said, may neither know or care much about Obama's religion. But they know they don't much like Islam. And they don't much like Obama. So when a pollster gives them the chance to toss a public opinion stink bomb, they take the shot.

"How much is that they really believe those things and how much is an opportunity to say something bad about him? We can't get inside their heads," Reifler said.

Has the M-word has lost its moorings in common political discussion in America the same way that Fundamentalist (which once had a clear, specific religious definition) came to be a pejorative term in common use?

Maybe it is because we don't have a lot of images of the Obama's attending church, some people speculate. The RNS report and the USA blog both point out that “... we don’t see a lot of pictures of him attending a house of worship ... ” but this is not a new phenomenon among US Presidents, even the most outwardly religious.

As president, Obama has addressed his faith occasionally, telling how he and other Christians “glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection” at an Easter prayer breakfast last April, or telling the National Prayer Breakfast in February, “I assure you I’m praying a lot these days.”

Obama had planned to attend “a number of different churches” in Washington, but the Obamas have visited only a few, including St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, two historically black Baptist congregations in Washington, and the Washington National Cathedral for an inauguration

All of which is to say that is probably not about religion, but more about politics. RNS continues:

Observers said the findings may have less to do with Obama and more to do with opponents who skillfully used the media—especially the Internet—to spread misinformation about the president.

Sally Steenland, a senior policy adviser to the Faith and Public Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress think tank, said it’s important for people of all parties to be responsible about telling the truth.

“Do any of us want to live in a country, or do we want to be voting, on the basis of made-up reality?” she said. “This is a pollution of democracy.”

The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College, said trying to fix the misperceptions could be a “difficult strategy” and “problematic” for the White House.

“I think sincerity in terms of his relationship with God is more important than trying to move poll numbers around religion,” she said.

Comments (4)

In regard to President Obama, the "M-Word" is code for the "N-Word."

We just never get over it, do we?

Politics. Is there any way to rid ourselves of this evil?

Before I say this I want to say that it's really his business -- what religion he associates himself with, or not -- But I would say that Obama gives lip service to religion and that he has mixed feelings about it. I wouldn't be surprised if at some time in his life he thought of himself as a Muslim, tried it on. Also, if he did identify as Christian, when the brouhaha happened with his pastor in Chicago it must have been hard, alienating. Maybe there are hard feelings there and he blames religion. The man is only human. I think his wife and mother in law have the faith in the family.

[tdh - Check out our commenting rules and in the future sign your name. - eds.]

CNN reports that Franklin Graham (Billy Graham's son) opined that the President was "born a Muslim" because he had a Muslim father and the "seed" being Muslim is passed through the father, like the "seed" of being a Jew is passed through the mother. Then he went on to say that the President "says" he's a Christian now, and that we must "take his word" for that.

Keith Olberman reports that, in fact, Barak Hussain Obama, senior, left the Muslim faith and became a Christian before his son was born.

This reminds me of the reaction to when straight people are thought to be gay- so what? Big denials just show the depth of prejudice all around. Or as it has been said "better to be called a lesbian by a bigot than to be thought a bigot by lesbians."

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