Have you heard the news? President Obama is a Muslim after all. I couldn't believe it, but he must be. I mean, 18 percent of Americans couldn't be wrong. I can only assume that, two years after I thought this "story" had been laid to rest, that some reputable media outlet finally exposed Obama for the closet Muslim (not that there's anything wrong with that) that nearly one in five Americans think he is. They didn't? So Obama isn't really a Muslim? You mean there's some substance to the repeated proclamations Obama has made about being a Christian -- or at least there is no credible reason to believe he is exactly who he has said he is not?
I was at first aghast when I started seeing stories about a Pew Research Center study published Wednesday that demonstrated that Americans are still very confused about Obama's religious beliefs was.
"Still?!" was my reply to the GetReligionistas and how I opened this blog post. Then I remembered an important lesson from an episode of "South Park" about 9/11 conspiracy theorists. (Warning: Some foul language.)
I had to let this piece of criticism germinate as I returned to law school yesterday, and it may have saved me a lot of hand wringing. Because while I was sitting through a handful of classes (entertainment law, copyright and digital wars -- oh my!), Slate's Jack Shafer was doing my job:
Don't these people read newspapers or watch TV? As a matter of fact, many do. According to the poll, 60 percent (PDF) of those who believe Obama is a Muslim also told the pollsters that they learned it from the media. Seeing as I can recall no major or minor media report that presented proof that would convince any sentient creature over the age of 10 that Obama is a Muslim, I'm starting to feel better. The 18 percenters are imagining things. Non-media sources cited by the poll's respondents include Obama's behaviors or own words (11 percent), nonspecific things they've heard or read (7 percent), the Internet (7 percent), things heard or read during the presidential campaign (6 percent), Obama's ancestry (4 percent), and so on.
Unfortunately, the percentage of poll respondents who said Obama is a Muslim and could also successfully define Islam was not on the list of questions. Nor was the question, "If a Muslim bit you on the ass, would you be able to identify his religion?" I'm guessing that the percentage of respondents who would answer yes to either of those questions would be low, as would the percentage who could accurately describe the tenets of faith observed by Muslims.
What we do know from the Pew survey is that beliefs about what religion Obama practices closely track the political assessment of him: About two-thirds of respondents who think Obama is a Muslim disapprove of the job he's doing as president, while about two-thirds of respondents who believe Obama is a Christian approve of his performance.
As you know, I am a Shafer fan. He has a keen eye for exposing the sordid story behind an exploding story and doesn't feel the need to just be a contrarian.
And he had a lot of stories, some more breathless than others, to choose from.
The Associated Press had a decent story that gave some context and texture to the American understanding of Obama's religion. The Washington Post started with an AP-like short news story, and followed that up today with a news feature about Obama's muted public expression of religion, referencing the church-search ordeal. And a New York Times piece that swears Obama is under intense persecution. Oy gevalt!
But as Shafer points out, this is nothing to set ourselves on fire over. Shafer concluded his criticism, quickly by Press Box standards, by evoking, at least for me, that "South Park" clip above:
I'd be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn't also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.
Amen, brother. If only there was a lot more light to go around.