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The debate over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York has raised questions about religious tolerance in America. President Obama says an Islamic group's rights to build it are clear. Less clear, how Americans perceive the president's own religious identity.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center says that only one person in three knows Mr. Obama is a Christian, while nearly one in five think he's a Muslim. Why the uncertainty? One reason may be what the White House calls the president's personal rather than public approach to religion.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: Let's go back to 1960. John F. Kennedy was running for president and everyone knew his religion. As a Roman Catholic, he had to battle critics who said he'd be taking orders from the Vatican.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.

GONYEA: Then came LBJ. His Protestant denomination, Disciples of Christ, was a non-issue. Richard Nixon was a Quaker; Gerald Ford an Episcopalian; Ronald Reagan was Presbyterian; George H. W. Bush was another Episcopalian; Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were Baptists. Carter, a self-described born again Christian, was among the most overtly religious of recent presidents, but so too was Mr. Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, a Methodist.

During the 2000 campaign, he was asked to name the political philosopher who most influenced him.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Christ, because he changed my heart.

GONYEA: President Bush was a regular at Sunday church services. President Obama is not, so Americans literally dont see him attending services or shaking hands with a pastor afterward.

A spokesman says the president prays daily, sometimes in conference calls with spiritual leaders, including one recent call aboard Air Force One. And he's given speeches about how his Christian faith helps him daily in his job, as he did this year on Easter Sunday at a White House prayer breakfast, reflecting on Christ's final moments on the cross.

President BARACK OBAMA: Father, he said, into your hands I commit my spirit. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. These words were spoken by our Lord and savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today.

GONYEA: John Green, of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says the challenge for any president when they talk about religion is to be spiritual and inclusive and careful.

Dr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): And so it's a really difficult thing, on the one hand, to balance talking about religion versus all the other topics that the president has to talk about, but then get the religious message exactly right.

GONYEA: Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston has been an informal spiritual adviser to Presidents Bush and Obama. He says the polls, showing nearly one in five Americans think Mr. Obama is a Muslim is troubling. He says it's a result of misinformation spread by Mr. Obama's opponents to hurt the president politically.

Reverend KIRBYJON CALDWELL (Pastor, Windsor Village United Methodist Church): It is fair and civil to attack the president's politics and his policies. I think it's unfair and uncivil, and even un-American, to attack the man's personal, personal fundamental faith.

GONYEA: Pastor Caldwell says the president shouldn't have to respond, but he may need to do so.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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