The misapprehension that Barack Obama is a Muslim demonstrates more than simple confusion about the basic fact of the president’s religion.
It — and to an extent even the correction of the matter by the White House and others — also conveys a pernicious anti-Muslim bias that should have no place in American thinking.
The problem isn’t only that close to 20 percent of Americans mistakenly identify Obama as a Muslim, it is also that that misconception apparently has grown over the last year in proportion to the decline in the president’s political standing. That makes clear the implication that being labeled a Muslim is really just another political epithet.
For Obama’s adversaries to claim they believe him to be Muslim is particularly absurd given the obsession conservatives had with statements made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, during the 2008 campaign.
The Wright controversy notwithstanding, however, it’s clear that the term Muslim has traveled a disgraceful trajectory in the years since no less than George W. Bush would go out of his way to laud Islam and its followers. Bush, a conservative Republican, once repeatedly sang the praises of Islam, and of Muslims, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields,” Bush remarked on one occasion in 2002. “Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation’s ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace.”
There also appears to be at least the suggestion that Obama would be unfit to serve in office if he were a Muslim. The White House strangely seemed to reinforce that particular implication. By so quickly releasing a statement calling the president a “committed Christian,” the president’s aides almost seemed to take on a tone of rebutting slander.
The matter of a president’s religious preference as a criterion to be eligible for office should have been settled 50 years ago with John F. Kennedy’s landmark speech addressing his Catholicism and his subsequent election.
The details surely have changed, but the spirit of JFK’s remarks to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 campaign ring as true — and apparently, sadly, remain just as required — as they did then.
Rather than defensively deny what amounts to an allegation of being Muslim, Obama, instead, ought to have cribbed this line from Kennedy: “So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.”
Let me just add that, in this, I have a particularly personal interest. I am a non-Christian myself. To use Obama’s phraseology, I have been a “committed Buddhist” for a number of years. My faith means much to me, has seen me through quite a lot, and I believe the world is a better place for having available the teachings of the Buddha. Although I have no interest in pursuing any elective office, it pains me to think that avenue is closed to me simply because I do not worship Jesus Christ.
In the midst of the current anti-Muslim hysteria, let me close, simply, with another prescient passage from Kennedy’s Houston speech:
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.
Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article first published as Obama’s Not A Muslim: Not That There Is Anything Wrong With That on Blogcritics.