Posted by: Jeff | August 19, 2010

One Fifth of Americans Think Barack Obama is Muslim… Read That Again

It’s difficult to decide what to make of the recent national poll conducted by Pew that indicates that 18% of a fairly large sample of Americans believe Barack Obama is not only not Christian (Rev. Wright scandal notwithstanding), but actually Muslim.  There are many takeaways – that in addition to that 18%, an additional 43% of those surveyed don’t know what religion he is.  And that only 34% actually believe he is Christian (in the same survey in 2009, 48% identified Obama as Christian).  The sharp increase in those believing Obama to be Muslim is startling (18% in 2010, just 11% in 2009).

What explains this?

Honestly, I don’t know.  And many shrewd analysts and commentators seem to be at a similar loss.  To me, the most interesting trend in the Pew data is the following graf from the report:

Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing. Those who are unsure about Obama’s religion are about evenly divided in their views of his performance.

To be sure, the data merely implies correlation, not causation.  But it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder why this correlation exists.

Now, we’re embarking into the realm of the purely hypothetical at this point, but there are two possible causes for this correlation that I can think of (beyond random chance, etc.).  One, those who believe Obama to be Muslim may hold it against him.  Given the specific and pointed derision over the New York City mosque controversy, as well as general Islamophobia that seems on the rise today, it’s a fairly easy assumption to make that if people genuinely believe Barack Obama to be Muslim, this is deemed a negative characteristic that would be at least partially responsible for an unfavorable view of the President.  In this scenario, the belief that Obama is Muslim contributes to his unfavorabile numbers among Republicans and some Independents.

Two, those who hate Obama’s policies and view his presidency unfavorably tend to cast him as Muslim.  There’s a fairly human reaction to paint distorted pictures of those we hate.  For instance, as a lifelong Vikings fan, I used to think that Brett Favre was a terrible person (as opposed to the standup guy he is today).  I wonder if this same trend isn’t being used against Obama.  When the Right paints Obama as a Muslim – or a socialist, for that matter – it may well be that they don’t really believe it, but are using it as a caricaturization of him to undermine his legitimacy as a mainstream political figure.  And the shift in the numbers indicate that perhaps this strategy actually does work.

But if true, man, is that a cynical view to adopt.

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