It's easy to sympathize with President Obama over the drumbeat of misrepresentations of his religion, place of birth and even the validity of his Social Security number. But in protesting too much that he is a Christian — and one, moreover, who prays daily — the White House may be encouraging the impression that there is a religious test for the presidency and that a Muslim would fail it.
Such defensiveness is unedifying in the context of a religiously pluralist society. Also, like the irrational opposition to the construction of an Islamic community center in New York City, it could confirm suspicions in the Muslim world that this country is hostile to Islam.
The White House insisted on Obama's Christian bona fides after last week's release of a Pew Research Center poll showing that 18% of respondents thought he was a Muslim, compared with 11% who expressed that belief in March 2009. The poll suggested that 34% of Americans believe the president is a Christian, down from 48% who said so last year. The poll was taken before the president expressed his support for the right of Muslims to erect the community center, which would include a room for prayer, two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack. In a Time magazine poll conducted after Obama's remarks, 24% of respondents said they thought the president was a Muslim and 47% that he was a Christian.
An Obama spokesman minimized the importance of the poll. Yet a clergyman who is one of Obama's spiritual advisers — and who also counseled President George W. Bush — materialized to complain that "never in the history of modern-day presidential politics has a president confessed his faith in the Lord and folks basically call him a liar." (Indeed, Obama told a Christian magazine during the 2008 campaign that "I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.")
The White House's sensitivity to the canard that Obama is a Muslim no doubt reflects the knowledge that many of those who propagate it believe that adherence to Islam is a disqualification for the presidency. But too strenuous and self-conscious a rebuttal runs the risk of encouraging that very view.
One pollster suggested that growing misconceptions about the president's religion reflected the fact that Obama hadn't "made religion a part of his public persona" as much as he did during the campaign. Instead of flaunting his Christian faith, the president should urge Americans to honor the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution, which says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."