For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many Americans struggle to understand that President Barack Obama is a perfectly ordinary liberal Protestant Christian. I also do not understand why, whenever I write about this, so many Obama supporters send me email accusing me of attacking the president by saying this.
Then again, I also do not understand why, whenever I write about this, so many people who oppose Obama send me email insisting that I am attacking Christianity when I note that Obama has frequently made public professions of his Christian faith.
Clearly, there are lots of things I do not understand about this whole issue.
You can hear that confusion quite easily in this week's GetReligion podcast. This is a confusing situation and, at the end of the podcast, I can understand if listeners are more confused than they were before the thing started. Nevertheless, I do hope you'll give it a listen.
The discussion spins around that recent Gallup Poll (click here for the details) noting that 11 percent of the nation's population remains convinced that their president is some kind of secret Muslim. Hey, cheer up. It wasn't that long ago when 18 percent believed that.
However, let me stress that it wasn't the whole "Obama is a Muslim" angle in this new poll that fired me up -- to the point of writing another Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic.
Nope, what amazed me was this number -- 44 percent of the Americans contacted in this new Gallup effort simply answered "I don't know" when asked to identify Obama's faith. This is roughly 137 million Americans. Say what?
At first glance, it was rather nice to find out that 52 percent of Democrats know that their leader is a Protestant Christian. But stop and think about that. Since 6 percent of Democrats elected to join HBO skeptic Bill Maher in his insistence that Obama is faking his faith (thus, selecting the "none/no religion" option), this would imply that somewhere around 40 percent (I'm leaving out some of the other smaller subgroups) of the nation's DEMOCRATS cannot identify Obama's faith. For those who are curious, 2 percent accurately linked him to the United Church of Christ.
By point of comparison, what percent of Republicans do you think would have answered "I don't know" when asked whether George W. Bush was a Christian, an unbeliever or whatever? I've been trying to find out if a pollster ever even bothered to ask that question, but I cannot seem to come up with the right search terms to plug into Google. I would be stunned if the chunk of GOP folks that said Bush the younger was a Christian of some sort was under 90 percent. Heck, I would assume that just about the same percentage of DEMOCRATS would have said the same thing, with some of them saying he was some kind of theocratic Reconstructionist (as opposed to being a rather normal United Methodist from Bible Belt territory).
Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. This is all so confusing.
The larger question, for Team Obama, is what all of this means heading into another election. But for me the key question is what this puzzle says about America. Thus, I called up a writer -- an expert on advertising -- who has done some thinking and writing about Obama, branding, religion and politics. His name is Mark Edward Taylor and he is the author of "Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol." Here's a clip or two from the end of that Scripps column:
We pick up with Obama's surge into national politic, after his years of schooling in Chicago politics:
By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words “change,” “hope” and “believe.” In his book, Taylor says the key is that the “believe” component centered on Obama’s image, talent and personal story -- not a creed. The candidate offered “himself to America,” rather than political or religious specifics.
“At no time did Obama declare, ‘I am the Messiah.’ Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one,” argued Taylor. “Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. ... He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption.”
This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans.
Then again, millions of other people reject 99 percent of the Godtalk that emerges from Obama's mouth. Some of these people, for sure, are numbered among those who believe he is a secret Muslim or some kind of atheist/agnostic in hiding.
Then again, many others simply think that he is not a "real" Christian, according to their definition of the term "Christian." Many people (and, trust me, they write lots of emails) say that they can tell that Obama is not a real Christian because he has the wrong beliefs. The fact that his beliefs are perfectly consistent with his Christian denomination is irrelevant, it seems. In other words, he is not part of a "real" church.
... (Millions) millions of other Americans balk at Obama’s privatized definition of “sin” as “being out of alignment with my values.” In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that “whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.”
Taylor is convinced this division -- between two very different views of faith -- is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.
“All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don’t know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not,” he said. “When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama.”
Good. That means that you'll enjoy the podcast.