WASHINGTON (RNS) Two new polls say as many as one in four Americans mistakenly believe President Obama is a Muslim, presenting the White House with the unique challenge of defining a central element of the president's life story.
Asked in a Time magazine poll whether the president is a Muslim or a Christian, 24 percent of respondents said Muslim, and 47 percent said Christian.
A separate Pew poll released Thursday (Aug. 19) found that 18 percent of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim. A full 43 percent of Americans -- across lines of race, political party and religion -- don't know what faith he follows.
Perhaps most strikingly, the number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim has increased over the last 18 months, while fewer believe that he's a Christian. The percentage of Americans who could identify Obama as a Christian has dropped from 48 percent to 34 percent, according to the Pew poll.
Experts pointed to a number of possible explanations, but one quickly rose to the top: The candidate who discovered Christian faith in a Chicago black church has rarely been seen leaving the White House for Sunday services.
"Possibly this reflects the degree to which this president is less public about his religion, especially than his predecessor was," said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Whatever the reason, White House spokesman Shin Inouye described Obama Thursday (Aug. 19) as a man of "strong Christian faith" even though "he doesn't wear it on his sleeve."
"He prays every day, he seeks a small circle of Christian pastors to give him spiritual advice and counseling, he even receives a daily devotional that he uses each morning," Inouye said.
Shaun Casey, an ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and a former adviser to the Obama campaign, said the poll findings indicate a "communications problem" in the White House, but also continuing opposition to the president.
Casey noted the Pew poll's finding that Republicans showed the most marked increase in believing Obama is a Muslim.
"It shows that people who are not political supporters are the ones who are willing to offer up their opinion he is a Muslim," Casey said.
John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the findings refute the "reasonable expectation" that as Americans come to know Obama better, they would have a more accurate picture of his faith.
"The fact that we don't see a lot of pictures of him attending a house of worship ... might have some kind of effect," said Green, who worked on the Pew study with other researchers.
As president, Obama has addressed his faith occasionally, telling how he and other Christians "glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection" at an Easter prayer breakfast last April, or telling the National Prayer Breakfast in February, "I assure you I'm praying a lot these days."
Obama had planned to attend "a number of different churches" in Washington, but the Obamas have visited only a few, including St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House, two historically black Baptist congregations in Washington, and the Washington National Cathedral for an inauguration prayer service.
The Pew poll of some 3,000 respondents was taken between July 21 and Aug. 5, before the president waded into the controversy over a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. After telling a Ramadan dinner at the White House that the U.S. has an "unshakeable" commitment to religious freedom, the next day he said he would not "comment on the wisdom" of placing the Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks.
The Time poll of some 1,000 adults was taken just after he made his comments.
Observers said the findings may have less to do with Obama and more to do with opponents who skillfully used the media -- especially the Internet -- to spread misinformation about the president.
Sally Steenland, a senior policy adviser to the Faith and Public Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress think tank, said it's important for people of all parties to be responsible about telling the truth.
"Do any of us want to live in a country, or do we want to be voting, on the basis of made-up reality?" she said. "This is a pollution of democracy."
The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College, said trying to fix the misperceptions could be a "difficult strategy" and "problematic" for the White House.
"I think sincerity in terms of his relationship with God is more important than trying to move poll numbers around religion," she said.
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