More Americans Question President's Religion

More Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim than ever before. But more important, says Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza, is that fewer people think the president is Christian. He says that means fewer Americans feel they can relate to President Obama, and vice versa.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now, the Opinion Page.

The percentage of Americans who think President Obama is a Muslim climbed from 11 to 18 percent since March of last year. That's according to a Pew poll released earlier this month. The exact reasons are unclear.

President Obama has clearly said he is a Christian. Still, evangelist Franklin Graham recently told CNN that the president was born a Muslim, and cited his father's religious beliefs. And Graham went on to add...

Reverend FRANKLIN GRAHAM (President, CEO and Evangelist, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association): Of course, the president says he is a Christian, and we just have to accept it as that.

SEABROOK: And the confusion continues. But Chris Cillizza says the more important number in the Pew poll isn't the rise in people who think Obama is a Muslim. It's the drop in the number of Americans who think he is a Christian, from 48 to 34 percent. That, he warns, signals a growing discontent between the American people and the president on a basic, gut level.

Do you agree? Is that what's at the - what's the heart of the question about the president's faith - 800-989-8255; the email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Now, Chris Cillizza, you write for the - you write "The Fix" for the Washington Post, and you join us from the headquarters in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much.

Mr. CHRIS CILLIZZA (Political Blogger, The Washington Post): Andrea, thanks for having me.

SEABROOK: So why is the 12 percent drop, this drop in the number of people who think he's a Christian, more - why is it really any different from the number of people who think he might - he is a Muslim?

Mr. CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I think the Muslim headline is the one that was -the headline, frankly, got most of the attention because it's, you know, it's the sort of thing that, you know, drives news. But it very closely correlates to the job approval the people think the president is doing. That is, people who disapprove of him are much more inclined to say, yes, he's a Muslim, than those who approve of the job he's doing. Conservative Republicans are the group that are the most inclined to say that.

So I think in some ways, it's a cipher for disapproving or not liking the president. You're sort of willing to believe these things - which, just for the listeners, have been proven repeatedly to be false.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CILLIZZA: There's no debate about the president's faith. He is a Christian. But I do think that that draws the headlines. Why the - I think the other number is more important. Number one, the Muslim number went from 11 to 18, which is not insignificant. But remember, as you pointed out, the Christian number went from 48 to 34...

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CILLIZZA: ...a - double the drop. I think, you know, the president - there are two ways of looking at this. Either the president is not fundamentally all that religious, or he's privately religious - which is what the White House says, that he doesn't want to wear his religion on his sleeve, but he regularly consults with religious leaders; he prays. You know, he has a faith. He just doesn't outwardly talk about it.

The issue, I think, just from a purely political perspective, is that lots and lots and lots of people in this country go to church, and do talk much more outwardly about their religion. It's a way in which they often feel as though they can connect with someone who's, you know - the president of the United States, not exactly a job that a lot of people have.

And empathy matters in politics. Feeling as though - you need the people who vote for you to feel as though you understand their problems, you understand their life. And that's always been the president's most difficult - you know, he's an - obviously, a very gifted communicator. But the thing that he has struggled with at times is he is not naturally empathetic. He's more - sort of intellectual. He likes to step back, hear a variety of arguments, then - and then come down on it. He's not the Bill Clinton, I feel your pain, wading-into-the-crowd-to-hug-people sort of president.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CILLIZZA: And that's no value judgment. You can succeed or fail in politics doing either. But the lack of - the fact that so many people say they now don't know what religion he is, it makes it more difficult, at least in some demographics, for him to connect.

SEABROOK: It's interesting because it doesn't sound like you're saying they think he's not Christian or - they're just sort of not walking around, thinking about it. He's - they're not identifying with him. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. CILLIZZA: Yeah. They just - right, exactly. They just don't know. And again, for lots and lots of people in this electorate, it doesn't matter at all. But there are a segment of people for whom it does matter, and it matters greatly. And they do not have a good read on him. Again, his resume and background are very different than many people. And so, it's harder for them to sort of identify with him as someone who does get what they're going through, as someone who...

SEABROOK: That's so interesting. You know, during his campaign, he was almost the - everyone could identify him because he had such a varied resume and background, or at least that was the story that the Democratic Party would like people to believe. Now, you're saying it's the same story, just backwards.

Mr. CILLIZZA: Yeah. I mean, I think that's what's fascinating, Andrea, about covering politics - at least from my perspective - is that, you know, your strengths can become your weaknesses and vice versa, you know? And I do think that you're exactly right.

I think his campaign - in a brilliant way - and he, himself, as a candidate brilliantly was able to take sort of everything that people wanted out of politics and felt like they weren't getting, and put it into him - that this was a person, as you mentioned, with a sort of, a very different resume, background - frankly, literally looked different than any president we've ever had before.

And so he was able to serve as a, you know, as a vessel through which everyone saw the best of what politics can be. Governing and campaigning are two very different things. We've learned that any number of times throughout history, including over the last 18 months or 20 months now, with President Obama.

And I think some of that vagueness, that unwillingness to - again, he always is going to get compared to Bill Clinton because Bill Clinton was the last Democratic president before him. You know, Bill Clinton, with the tearing up and the hugging and the very famous, you know, I-feel-your-pain line - that is not Barack Obama. That doesn't make him a good, bad or indifferent president, but that's not who he is.

And so religion would be a way in which he could bridge some of that sort of natural unease with doing the kind of empathetic outreach that I think he views as somewhat political - politically phony. But again, he has shown time and time again, he does not tend to bend as the political reeds blow. And I think this is an issue where we're very likely to see the same approach by his White House.

SEABROOK: Chris, let's take some calls now. We have Mariette(ph) in Sacramento, California. Hi. You're on the air.

MARIETTE (Caller): What I'd like to say is, you know, is people don't understand that there is a machine behind this what-is-the-religion-of-the-president. It's kind of like the woman who made the statement during the election, he's an Arab. There was a machine behind that as well. The reality is, church and state are supposed to be separate. We have never put a president on trial like this over his religion.

And as far as him being different from Bill Clinton, wasn't anybody talking about Bill Clinton, what his religion was, whenever Monica Lewinsky was in the picture. This is just a campaign to slaughter the president in the public. They don't like what he's doing. He's not leaning to the far right, and they just don't like it. So what can they question? His religion, and call him a Muslim. Why? Because they know there are so many Americans that are so sensitive to Muslims. Why? Because of the machine of hate behind that, trying to get Americans to hate Muslims, to continue this terrorist war.

SEABROOK: Thanks so much for your call. Chris, what do you think?

Mr. CILLIZZA: I mean, that's why - frankly, I think the caller addresses at least why I thought the Muslim numbers were a little bit overblown and some of the other fascinating numbers in the poll were lost - which is, there is a very a close correlation between those who disapprove of the job the president is doing, and those who say that he is of the Muslim faith.

There are always - in any election, in any presidency, there are going to be 15 or 20 percent - pick, actually - frankly, pick whatever number, but it's probably under 30 and above 5 on each side, who fundamentally do not want whoever it is, is president to be president, and are willing to believe the worst of them. We saw it with George W. Bush. We saw it with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson. I mean, pick a president, and you will see that happen.

And so, in some ways, while I guess it's a little eye-opening that you have almost one in five people saying something that is factually untrue, I think, really that that number is also read as, these are the people who are the most anti of the anti-Obama crowd, in just the same way that there are certain number of people who would be ready to believe almost anything about George W. Bush, almost anything about Bill Clinton, almost anything about George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan.

You know, I think that that core exists. I think it's rallied around the idea that Barack Obama is either a Muslim or a socialist. Why those two things have gained credence, I don't know. But again, I think it's more a reflection on an element within each party's base willing to believe the worst about the other side than it is something that's particularly unique to him.

SEABROOK: Bringing up the idea that being Muslim is the - is what that side believes is the worst or could be the worst. So you're saying, then, if you called people who hated Barack Obama and said, do you think Barack Obama has antenna an as - and is an alien, they would say yes.

Mr. CILLIZZA: I think - I don't know if they'd say yes, Andrea, but I'd say there's a whole heck of a lot larger percentage or chance that they would, than if you called an independent who maybe voted for George Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008.

SEABROOK: Huh. Here's a good email from Michael(ph). He says: Barack Obama goes out of his way to avoid Christian activities, but takes part in Muslim activities.

Mr. CILLIZZA: You know, I think what that - the email addresses the idea that Barack Obama is not regularly seen going to church. He speaks at churches occasionally but doesn't attend, although the White House says he attends regularly at Camp David. And you know, the comments he made about the controversial New York City mosque came at an iftar dinner a few weeks ago at the White House.

I think - look, I think Barack Obama has said and believes that his election allows outreach to be done to the Muslim world in a way that can help us win the war on terrorism. That is that, you know, the idea that all Muslims are terrorists - clearly not true. And Barack Obama sees this as his chance to both show the Muslim world the best of America, and show America the best of the Muslim world.

Again, it's a somewhat complex argument that people who are not inclined to like or agree with Barack Obama are simply not going to follow him down that road. It is something that is persistent in American politics, that - not having to do with religion per se. But there's - in some ways, there's nothing new under the sun, and I think this is a case of that.

SEABROOK: Melissa(ph) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hi, you're on the air.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi, I just said that - I said, who cares. I don't understand why we're talking about this when we really should be talking about the actions that he's taking, and whether or not these actions are acceptable or unacceptable, rather than talking about his religion. It just - I just think it's inconsequential.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Melissa. We also have an email that makes a similar point from - this is from Riswan(ph). The email says: The real question to ask is, so what if he's a Muslim? Chris?

Mr. CILLIZZA: I mean, in some ways it's immaterial, I think. The problem with saying so what, is then people say, so is he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CILLIZZA: That's the problem - that you go down that road, you have to kind of say no, he isn't, as the White House put out a statement that said. I mean, look, it shows the level to which this had permeated into the news. And that the White House, as President Obama was leaving for a 10-day vacation, Martha's Vineyard, felt compelled to put out a statement saying that he was a quote, committed Christian.

Should it matter? No. Was it an issue when John Kennedy was running as a - I'm a Catholic, speaking as a Catholic - when John Kennedy was running in 1960 as a Catholic, that he was going to take his orders from Rome? Yeah, it was. But again, we're - it's kind of an apples and oranges comparison because John Kennedy was Catholic. Barack Obama is not Muslim. That's the problem. That comparison kind of fades.

SEABROOK: We would be remiss if we didn't bring up this question that Vicky(ph) has. She says: People believe what the propaganda media tell them because they don't know it isn't news. Is that part of it, Chris?

Mr. CILLIZZA: You know, Andrea, I think it - one number, you know, I said I think a lot of numbers got overlooked. One number I found fascinating was 60 percent of people said they "learned" - and I'm putting learned in quotes - that Barack Obama was a Muslim from the news media - by far, the largest. They ask, sort of, where did you get this information? Of course, that led to lots of media bashing, which is very, you know, popular and easily done. We're a terrific scapegoat. But I would say, I think a lot of people are defining the media very broadly: email chains, message boards, you know, conservative media strings that are not part - even in the broadest definition - of the mainstream media, and saying, well, the media told me.

Well, getting an email chain from someone is not the media. But you know, I think people kind of lump it in - again, because the media is easily scapegoated. I'm not sure that - I know that anytime it's ever come up in my conversations, whether doing interviews, whether writing, whether being on television, I always say, I'm more than happy to talk about it, but let's get the facts straight first. Barack Obama is not a Muslim. He is a Christian. We have absolutely no evidence anywhere in his life to draw any other conclusion on that.

Now, I'm happy to talk about the people who believe wrongly that that's the case, but let's say that at the start.

SEABROOK: Hmm. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go to Jean(ph) in Richmond, Virginia. Hi, Jean.

JEAN (Caller): Hey, there.

SEABROOK: Go ahead.

JEAN: Hi. I agree with a lot that's been said. However, I have friends who unfortunately - from my point of view - are conservative Republicans, and they don't believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. I think that 12 percent, as has been talked about, represents a group of people who not only dislike him, but are extremely fearful of him because, let's face it, he's an African-American -or a mixed-race American. And that frightens a lot of people. It's very politically incorrect to say that out loud. And so people will say instead, you know, he's a Muslim.

And they probably don't do the due diligence that they would do in any other case if it were a man who looked different, let's say.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Jean. Chris, let me - we have to make this point as well, and that is that the Pew poll was taken before the current flap...

Mr. CILLIZZA: Absolutely.

SEABROOK: ...about the Park 51 mosque - broke out. Is that going to affect this, going forward?

Mr. CILLIZZA: You know, I think if they took the poll a week after, maybe. Long term, I think it would probably settle, Andrea, back to kind of where it is now, somewhere between 12 and 18 percent. You know, the caller brought up the issue of race. And the hard thing if you're myself, a political reporter, you look at the data and it's - nothing in there suggests it, and it's hard to extrapolate away from it.

I think, you know, one of the things - when I wrote about this, obviously there's a lot of commentary, as you might - it might not surprise you. And you know, one of the things was simply, these people do not like him because he is the first African-American president. It's very difficult to either prove or disprove that from the data, and the data is kind of what we have to go on. Anything else, I'd feel like, is kind of anecdotal. You know, you have a friend who says this, and a friend who doesn't. That doesn't really get to what we're trying to do as political reporters, present the situation.

But it's clearly tied up with his history-making presidency and, you know, an issue that we're going to, I think, be dealing with as we move forward in 2010 and 2011, 2012.

SEABROOK: Chris Cillizza, he writes "The Fix" for the Washington Post. And he joined us from the Washington Post studios. It's been great talking to you, Chris. Thanks for coming on.

Mr. CILLIZZA: Thank you for having me.

SEABROOK: I'm Andrea Seabrook, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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