(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles…)
Republicans from time to time have accused President Obama of playing identity politics. Here's the problem: The electorate remains confused about his identity.
The problem is most famously manifested in persistent conspiracy theories, driven by conspiracy-loving “birthers,” about Obama's birthplace and citizenship. But voters remain muddled about his religion as well, as a new Gallup poll confirms.
The poll released Friday shows that just 34% of Americans can identify Obama as a Christian or, more specifically, as a Protestant. Eleven percent remain convinced that he is Muslim, and 44% say they don't know.
That is striking, because few presidents have spoken and written as much about their faith as Obama. His Christianity, in fact, ignited the biggest controversy of his 2008 campaign when incendiary videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's longtime pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, went viral on the internet. Obama eventually severed ties with Wright, and since then has attended a variety of Christian churches. He uses Christian language and imagery often in speeches.
For instance, when he announced his support for same-sex marriage recently, here was how he described the deliberations he went through with his wife, Michelle:
"We are both practicing Christians, and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others, but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated."
In contrast to Obama, Republican Mitt Romney rarely speaks about his faith, yet Gallup found that 57% of Americans could correctly identify him as a Mormon.
That may suggest that a certain percentage of the populace knows that Obama professes a Christian faith but doesn't believe him. One hint of that: Republicans are six times as likely as Democrats to identify Obama as a Muslim, and less than half as likely to say he is Christian.
Obama's father was born into a Muslim family in Kenya, but was an atheist by the time Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, according to the president's accounts. Obama has written that he was not raised in a religious household, but converted to Christianity as an adult, in part through Wright's influence.
The Gallup findings were remarkably consistent with those of a Pew Research Center poll in August 2010, in which 34% of those surveyed said Obama was Christian, 18% said Muslim and 43% said they didn't know.
It is also notable that the matter is even an issue. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University and the author of "God in the White House: How Faith Shapes the Presidency -- from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush," has noted that there was a time in American politics when the electorate didn't pay any attention to the president's religion and didn't particularly care.
How many Americans, he has asked, knew the religious denomination of Lyndon Johnson? (He was a member of the Disciples of Christ.)
The Gallup poll was based on telephone interviews conducted June 7-10 with a random sample of 1,004 adults nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.