Monday, August 23, 2010

President Obama as a Muslim and Religious Tests

How one in five Americans view the President
A recent Pew poll showed that 18% of Americans think Pres. Obama is a Muslim, 34% correctly think he is a Christian, and a whopping 43% say they don't know.  There are various interpretations of where this misinformation is coming from, ranging from a right-wing effort to cast doubt on the president's Christianity to the president's failure to tackle the issue head-on to the fact that some (many?) Americans are just stupid.  Of course it is a combination of all of these.

The poll gets to an issue Americans have struggled with for a long time: whether the religion of our president and elected leaders should even matter at all.  George W. Bush famously claimed that God told him to invade Iraq (I'm thinking I worship a different God than him), Ronald Reagan was distinctly irreligious, Bill Clinton was actively religious but of course that was muddied by his personal, shall we say, indiscretions.  We know all of this, and much more, because we tend to care a great deal about the religions of our presidents and elected leaders.

Another recent poll, this one from Gallup, showed that one-fourth of Americans wouldn't vote for a Mormon, and over half wouldn't vote for an atheist.  A Fox poll showed about the same numbers and also showed that Americans would be even a little less likely to vote for a Muslim than a Mormon.

Article 6, Section 3 of the Constitution states:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
It appears that while there is no official religious test in America for public office, there is a de facto test in the minds of the majority of Americans, and if a candidate doesn't fit neatly into their preconceived white Protestant ideal, that candidate is in for a difficult ride.  One recent good example of this was the race for governor in South Carolina.  Nikki Haley converted from Sikhism to Christianity, but that didn't stop her primary opponent from calling her a "raghead" and Ms. Haley having to explain her religious beliefs to voters in an effort to allay fears.  She eventually won her primary, but that her religion was an issue at all was unfortunate.  What if she had still been a Sikh?  Doesn't that disqualify her from being a good governor?

Mitt Romney's Mormonism was similarly a big issue for his campaign and, really, a hindrance.  Should his religious beliefs alone have disqualified him from consideration for the presidency?  It did in the minds of many, many voters.

And now a big majority of Americans are not even willing to let Muslims build a cultural center a couple blocks away from ground zero.  It feels like we are taking a step back in religious tolerance in this country.  It seems like America is now propelled by fear and pessimism as opposed to courage and optimism.  There is no doubt that this is a period of change: terrorism is a new amorphous enemy, the economy is pretty ragged and it's hard to know how to compete when it is cheaper for businesses to function outside the country, and environmental concerns are growing.  But instead of bringing our best ideas to the table we are falling back on old prejudices and stale ideas.  We're demonizing "others" as a cheap trick to soothe ourselves.

As a member of a religion that is not exactly mainstream, I worry that if we allow ourselves to go down this road, a road where political candidates and their ideas are judged first by the person's religion instead of their inherent merit and where there is a knee-jerk reaction against minority religious beliefs and opinions, that we'll be excluded first and eventually targeted just like Muslims are now.

And the threats come from two directions.  On the one hand some extreme liberals would like see religion removed from the public psyche altogether, and on the other some extreme conservatives want to push America as a solely Christian nation to the point that all non-evangelical Protestantism is removed from the public psyche altogether.

Neither extreme is good for Mormons, obviously.  As a result, we should be making a strenuous case for healthy religious tolerance in America, and a good first step would be rejecting religious tests for our elected leaders and supporting (not grudgingly) the right of Muslims to build their center where they want.


Architect said...

For better or for worse, our president has declined to join a church in Washington DC.

One would hope that after living in a large city nearly four years one could find a church to attend.

I think that the confusion about his religious convictions stem from his indecision.

PS. During the campaign in an interview with George Stephenopolis, Candidate Obama was corrected by his interviewer when he misstated, "My Muslim Faith". The candidate actually meant to say, "my Christian Faith."

Jacob S. said...

Two points:

First, there are hundreds of evidences that Obama is a Christian. He wrote about it in his books, he's talked about it in speeches, he has a well known Christian church he attended in Chicago (by the way, I bet the same people that were so horrified that Obama continually went to Reverend Jeremiah Wright's church are the same people that believe he is a Muslim), and yet you are willing to doubt his faith because he one time slipped and said "my Muslim faith"? Do you realize how ridiculous this is? Also, Reagan never went to church, Clinton only did occasionally, did anyone ever doubt there beliefs? This has more to do with his skin color and weird name than anything.

Second, who cares? That was the whole point of the post: Who cares? What if he is Muslim, or atheist, or Hindu, or Catholilc, or Buddhist? Should it even matter? We aren't electing a chief chaplain or head bishop, we are electing a POTUS whose oath is to uphold and defend the nation and constitution. Religion's got nothing to do with it. I'd rather have an excellent Muslim or atheist president than a crappy Christian one.

Shawn O. said...

"I'd rather have an excellent Muslim or atheist president than a crappy Christian one."

Totally agree. I think too many people are under the delusion that moral=Christian, and equally mistaken, that Christian=moral.
I want a president that does a president's job.

I'd also love to have the playground politics of the house and senate disappear and people actually try to cooperate.

Architect said...

Sorry if you misunderstood. I was trying to make a point that I could understand how others could make a mistake about our President's Beliefs.
1) He has not picked a local church to attend.
2) [tongue in cheek] He misspoke in a nationally televised interview.

Jacob S. said...

Oh, I see. This is the age-old problem of the internet, you can rarely get a sense for someone's tone and you can't ask for immediate follow-ups. I often will write what I think is something witty and sarcastic and it just comes across as mean and biting.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember Reagan or Bush spending much time in church and no one called them names. One reason presidents don't go to church is the terrible disruption it causes. The Secret Service has to check everything out in advance, churchgoers have to be ruins church for everyone else. I think Reagan even commented on this once. I know Reagan spoke at my employer's annual meeting one year and it was awful what we had to go through to have him there. It frankly wasn't worth it.