The number of Americans from all kinds of demographics who are unsure that President Obama is a Christian have grown since he's been in office. For instance, "fewer than half of Democrats (46%) know Obama is a Christian, down from 55% in March 2009. Barely four-in-ten African-Americans say he's a Christian, down from 56% last year," an exasperated Amy Sullivan noted in an August 19 Swampland blog post at Time.com.
So who's fault is that? Conservatives, of course, the religion reporter insisted:
It would also be foolish and naive to pretend that conservatives who call Obama a Muslim are doing it in a neutral way and that their intention is anything other than to raise questions about his "otherness."
Sullivan failed to name which prominent conservatives in particular she felt were responsible for moving public opinion on the president's religious loyalties. But in her zeal to vigorously defend Obama as a follower of Christ, Sullivan concluded by asserting that the White House has to take care to "offset those perceptions [that Obama is secretly a Muslim] with a little more openness about the president's real Christian faith." Perhaps Sullivan was being extremely charitable and wished to avoid rank cynicism, but not once did it occur to her that President Obama might be an agnostic who, like many Americans, nominally associates with the Christian faith because it's a proper thing to do. Prior to his presidency, might President Obama have attended -- albeit infrequently -- Trinity United Church of Christ out of a mix of a vague sense of social and familial obligation and political calculus? Sullivan leaves that possibility unexplored. To her mind, Obama is unquestionably a Christian and that story must be put out there by the White House PR shop in order to bolster Obama's connection with the electorate (emphasis mine):
I suppose you could call the White House's complete lack of concern about Obama's religious image admirable. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a crafty political adviser marching into the Oval Office and insisting: "Mr. President, I'm sorry, but we have to have you walking into a church every Sunday morning, preferably with a big Bible under your arm." And in a perfect world, nobody would give a hoot whether the president went to church or said grace before meals or ever uttered one word publicly about his religious beliefs. But these Pew results suggest that nearly two years after Americans elected Obama, they know less about him than they did when he was a presidential candidate still making his way onto their radar. Forget the question of what that means for 2012--it's already a problem for a leader who wants to connect with the country.
One last note on another finding I found fascinating: Of those Americans who think Obama is a Muslim, nearly one-quarter (24%) told Pew pollsters they think he talks about his faith too much. Which is impossible, of course, because Obama is not a Muslim, so he's spent exactly zero minutes talking about being one. What the result really illustrates is how thoroughly those who oppose Obama are willing to read everything he says and does through a filter of distrust. Sixty percent of those who think Obama is a Muslim say they got that idea from the media. But interestingly, one-in-ten say they got it from Obama's own behavior or words. They hear the Cairo speech or see the outreach to Muslim countries and assume, well of course, it's because he's Muslim. That doesn't mean he shouldn't engage in the outreach--far from it. But it does make it even more important for the White House to offset those perceptions with a little more openness about the president's real Christian faith.