More than three years after President Obama was inaugurated, 1 in 6 Americans still believe that he’s a Muslim. That’s right: according to a new survey from Public Religion Research Institute, 16% of Americans incorrectly believe that Obama, who is a member of the United Church of Christ (which, incidentally, is one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the United States), is actually a follower of Islam. Equally bafflingly, fewer than 4 in 10 voters can correctly identify Barack Obama as Protestant or just Christian. An additional 4% say that he’s a Catholic, and nearly 4 in 10 (39%) say that they are unsure what his religious beliefs are. It’s just as strange as the notion that the Obama administration is anti-religious.
To put this in context: back in 2008, when Obama was running for president, only 12% of Americans believed that he was a Muslim. So although this isn’t a particularly substantial change, it’s pretty boggling that the number of people who believe that Obama is a Muslim is either holding steady or going up.
Looking more deeply at the data, though, we can see that this “mistake” is concentrated heavily among specific populations: namely Republicans and conservative Christians. About a quarter of both Republican (25 percent) and evangelical (24 percent) voters think Obama is a Muslim. Meanwhile, only 7% of the religiously unaffiliated (who tend to lean left) believe that Obama is a Muslim.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s bizarre that anyone, regardless of their party affiliation, could think that Obama is a Muslim, when he’s talked so openly about his Christian faith. According to Dan Cox, PRRI’s lead researcher, it could have something to do with Obama’s background. “He’s said it himself,” Cox explained to Business Insider. “He has a funny sounding name. It’s very non-traditional as far as American standard names go. And there’s his upbringing he spent a lot of years studying abroad.”
But when we’re talking about Republicans and evangelicals, it also seems likely that “Muslim” is code for something else — which would explain why the numbers aren’t changing. After all, if “Muslim” means “anti-American,” then it could simply be serving as just another epithet against a president who isn’t following their political will. And from that standpoint, it’s less shocking (although still pretty disturbing) that so many Americans say that Obama’s a Muslim. It’s just another way of saying “I don’t like him.”
This still doesn’t explain why so many Americans are unaware of the fact that Obama’s a Christian. But according to the same survey, about 35% of American voters also don’t know what Mitt Romney’s religious background is either. So it may have more to do with political ignorance than Obama’s failure to articulately talk about his faith.
Photo Credit: The White House
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