Poll: More Americans Convinced Obama Is A Muslim

A growing number of Americans incorrectly believe that President Obama, a Christian, is a Muslim. A poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows nearly 1 in 5 people, or 18 percent, believe Obama is a Muslim. That's up from 11 percent in March 2009. Linda Wertheimer speaks to Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center about the poll.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A new poll shows that a growing number of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim. And the numbers who say correctly that he is Christian are declining. That is a shift from last year. Now more than 40 percent tell pollsters that they don't know what the president's religion is.

This comes from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which talked to 3,000 people in this survey. The survey was taken before the argument you just heard Don Gonyea discussing really heated up - between July 21 and August 5.

Joining us to talk about that poll is the president of the Pew Research Center, Andrew Kohut. Good morning, Andy.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama calls himself a Christian, Andy. We all remember the controversy over his pastor in Chicago during the campaign. But the number of people who identify him as Christian is declining from about half to about a third. Why?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, the percentage of people saying I don't know what religion President Obama is increased from about a third, 34 percent, to 43 percent. And I think this has to do with the fact that religion is not a prominent part of Barack Obama's persona.

Now, I think the increase with respect to the number who thinks he's a Muslim has to do with something else. I think that's the intensification of negative views about him among his critics. All of the shift, all of the increased mention of him as a Muslim, basically comes from people who disapprove of him.

WERTHEIMER: So what can you - does that mean politics, Republican politics, conservative politics? Can you identify them?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, it's largely Republican, it's largely conservative, and as I said, overwhelmingly people who don't like Barack Obama. It's part of, I think, a mindset of people who are personally critical of Obama, saying, well, you know, he's not like us. You know, there's this whole birther thing that goes on and on.

In any event, the critical - I think the real critical issue from the perspective of the broad public is that - this falling recognition of what his religion is. Even Democrats are less of the view that he's a Christian - that declined from 55 to 44 percent - and more of a view that, hey, I don't know what religion the president is, from 32 to 41 percent over the course of a year.

And a majority of people say a president having strong religious faith is important to them. They don't want a president who governs by religion, but they see it as an important value.

WERTHEIMER: Now, certainly people were in no doubt about George Bush's religious faith, or Jimmy Carter's religious faith. We've had presidents who make a big point of it and then we've had other presidents - Ronald Reagan comes immediately to mind - who did not make a big point of going to church all the time.

Mr. KOHUT: Yeah, and that may be in part Obama's problem here with respect to what his religion is. I mean, President Bush set such a high bar in terms of his religiosity that looking at Obama and saying, wow, he's not very religious, the point of reference was President Bush, who was very religious. So there's that.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that this public attitude plays into their current controversy over building the Islamic center? Do you think that it leads the president's opponents to think that this might be potent political ground for them?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I don't know whether it play - in the mind of the public whether it play - I don't want to speculate whether it plays into this controversy. But it certainly is grist for the mill of those who are politicking on the president and looking forward to the midterm elections.

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research Center. Thank you very much.

Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.

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