A couple new polls just released are causing quite a bit of eye rolling and aggravation among President Obama’s supporters. The numbers show that an increasing percentage of Americans believe the president is Muslim; a decreasing amount that he is Christian; and a growing plurality who are unsure of his religion altogether. Those who believe he is Muslim, 18% in one poll, are wrong (and I suspect many who say they believe this do so just to irk liberals, much in the same vein of Republicans during the Bush years who referred to their opposition as members of the “Democrat party”). 34% take Obama at his word, that he is Christian, while 43% are unsure.
Many, including a Christian pastor who has known Obama for years, claim that the misperception about the president stems from the GOP media machine that subtly fills the airwaves with misinformation, and the fact that the president does not attend church services as publicly, or as frequently, as Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They may be correct, but what I find is interesting is the 43% percent who are unsure, and I wonder if it has less to do with whether Obama is Muslim and more to do with what we mean by Christian.
There are still pockets of Evangelicals who don’t consider Roman Catholics to be Christian; I remember being asked once if I was a Christian, to which I replied yes, only to have my interlocutor correct me. I was in fact Catholic, not Christian. There are also some Catholics who don’t believe that some mainline Protestants to be fully Christian (our own Church refuses to call Protestant churches what they are: churches). So even within our own Christian family, there is not a consensus as to who is actually Christian and who is not.
We have a president who does not go to church regularly, if at all. He is the son of a Muslim man from Kenya, and who spent his formative years in predominantly Muslim countries, and who speaks of religion in such vague platitudes, one does begin to wonder what in fact he is getting at. Consider the words he spoke before lighting the national Christmas tree last December: "[Christmas] represents a tradition that we celebrate as a country--a tradition that has come to represent more than any one holiday or religion, but a season of brotherhood and generosity to our fellow citizens."
Now the president says he prays each day, and we are well aware of his membership at a UCC church in Chicago, where Jeremiah Wright was his pastor. Obama calls himself a Christian. As a nation, we would do well to leave it there, and let the president get back to being commander-in-chief, not theologian-in-chief. But those who are inclined to believe the president, and I count myself among them, must not dismiss those who are unsure as crazed conspiracy theorists intent of bringing down this administration. Rather, let’s offer some benefit of the doubt to that 43%, many of whom perhaps struggle to see people whose Christianity looks quite different from their own as brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, this is a challenge that still plagues even in our own family of faith.