TUPELO – Not long ago Barack Obama’s association with his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, looked as though it might derail his presidential campaign.
As the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Wright had a reputation as a firebrand, and when excerpts from his sermons, in which he used heated rhetoric to lambaste the United States for its mistreatment of minorities, began circulating on the Internet and television, people began wondering just what sort of Christian church Obama had been attending for more than 20 years.
Wright’s intense language seemed excessive, even to left-leaning Christians, though some African-American pastors insisted it had to be seen in the context of the black church’s long-standing emphasis on social justice.
Obama denounced Wright’s words, distanced himself from the Chicago church and ultimately dodged a potentially fatal setback to his campaign. Today, however, two years into his presidency, Obama finds himself again facing questions about his faith.
According to recent polls, an increasing number of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. Many people of faith are scratching their heads over the polls, while others are feeling that their suspicions about the president are being confirmed.
“This is a rather strange phenomenon, but people are certainly entitled to their opinions, and I think it is a very small percentage of the population that actually believes he is a Muslim,” said Dr. Nnamdi Anosike, professor of sociology at Rust College in Holly Springs.
Perhaps it is strange, but according to two recent polls, from the Pew Research Center and Time magazine respectively, anywhere from 18-24 percent of Americans say they believe their president is a Muslim, despite his stating repeatedly in biographies and speeches that he’s a Christian. That percentage is up from 11 percent in March of 2009, according to the Pew poll.
Dr. James Bowley, chair of religious studies at Millsaps College, has a theory about what these numbers mean.
“I really believe it’s more of a political thing than a religious thing,” said Bowley, who is Jewish. People who disagree strongly with the Democratic president and his policies, Bowley believes, are more likely to entertain the idea that he’s secretly a Muslim.
The polls seem to support Bowley’s contention.
In the Pew poll, among those who disapproved of Obama’s performance, the number who believed he was a Muslim was 30 percent. Among Republicans, it was 31 percent. Among self-described conservative Republicans, the number was 34 percent.
“Religion and politics kind of feed off each other,” said Bowley. “People first get upset about politics, then shrewd politicians use that to their advantage to try and translate that anger into fear of the unknown, or fear about religion.”
The pollsters at Time asked respondents if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of various religious groups, including Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants and Mormons.
Forty-three percent said they had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Muslims, more than any other group. Mormons came in second at 29 percent.
Linking Obama to a religion that many Americans dislike, Bowley believes, is politically advantageous for the president’s opponents.
Grant Sowell knows well that religion and politics often get intertwined, and there aren’t many of Obama’s policies with which the organizer of the Tupelo TEA Party agrees.
Sowell doesn’t believe, however, that people’s misgivings about Obama’s religious orientation can be reduced simply to politics.
“If you looked at it strictly as an outsider, I think there’s a pattern, and a person might come to a conclusion,” said Sowell, a member of Good News Church in Tupelo.
According to Sowell, a series of actions and omissions on Obama’s part suggest, at the very least, that the president’s religious sensibilities aren’t in tune with those of most mainstream Christians.
Sowell believes Obama acted too conciliatory during visits to Muslim countries like Turkey and Egypt, and that he’s assumed a deferential posture toward the Muslim world since taking office.
Many right-leaning Christians, like Sowell, also believe the president bowed while shaking hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at a G-20 summit in London in 2009.
On the domestic front, Obama upset many conservative Christians by breaking with the custom of his predecessor and recognizing the National Day of Prayer with a written proclamation rather than with a ceremony at the White House. Sowell also disapproves of the president, “in the dead of the night,” last year proclaiming June Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans-gender Pride Month.
Shortly after taking office Obama also repealed an act from 1984 that prohibited U.S. tax dollars from funding non-governmental, international agencies that support or promote abortion.
“I don’t believe he fears God,” said Sowell, who stopped short, however, of calling Obama a Muslim.
Nnamdi of Rust College said the belief that Obama is a Muslim isn’t really about religion or even politics, but rather an expression of distrust among “those who fear rapid, social change.”
“They do not believe that the liberal elite, whom, in their minds, he represents, will honor and respect their social traditions,” said Nnamdi, a native of Nigeria who has taught at Rust College for 16 years.
One of those traditions, according to Nnamdi, is the traditional family structure, which doesn’t include homosexuals.
Another likely explanation, Nnamdi said, is that this has been a big misunderstanding, made worse, in part, by a media that hasn’t always presented Obama’s past clearly.
“His (Obama) father was of Muslim heritage, and his mother married another man who was also Muslim, and he spent a great deal of time in that culture, but people misconstrue that to mean that he is Muslim now,” said Nnamdi. “He is clearly a Christian. He goes to church, but perhaps he hasn’t attended the kind of mainstream church with which many people are comfortable.”
In his autobiographical works, Obama says that he grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion and became a Christian in his 20s.
A recent article in Forbes Magazine suggested that because Obama spent the first 17 years of his life in Hawaii, Indonesia and Pakistan, his vision for the United States might not equate with what some citizens would consider the quintessential American dream. The article suggests that Obama is actually aspiring to the vision of his biological father, a fierce anticolonialist who grew up during Africa’s struggle to break free of European rule.
Lillie S. McNeal, professor of Biblical studies and culture at Rust College, believes that by distancing himself from religion, Obama is actually positioning himself to govern more effectively. Unlike his predecessor, who many feel wore religion on his sleeve, Obama’s distance from religion may cause some to wonder where he stands, but it also affords him a more objective position from which to govern a diverse population.
Bowley of Millsaps College pointed out that in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, President Bush drew a clear distinction between the extremists who perpetrated the violence, and the majority of Muslims who value peace and tolerance. The U.S., Bush said, wasn’t going to war with the religion of Islam.
McNeal believes that the historical moment in which Obama governs calls for a neutral stance toward religion.
“He’s not just governing Christians but a wide swath of mankind,” said McNeal. “If I were him, I’d be careful about revealing my religious beliefs. His basic attempt to straddle the fence is part of the art of being free.”
Contact religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal