The Cost of Lying about the President’s Religion

Like so many other commentators who’ve written on the subject during the past week, my colleague Sally Steenland struck a generous a tone in her tongue-in-cheek assessment of the people who said in a new poll that they believe President Obama is a Muslim. I am not as kind in my assessment of the nearly one in five respondents who admit to believing this nonsense fed to them by right-wing zealots.

Oh, I don’t question for a minute that 18 percent of the respondents told researchers from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that they doubt the president is a Christian. Those people probably did say that—despite President Obama’s public and repeated declarations otherwise. But I’ll tell you what Steenland and others who have bemoaned the poll’s findings have been too polite to say: Anyone who claims the president is a Muslim is lying. Or crazy. Or very possibly, both.

There is no alternative rational explanation to justify the blatant display of ignorance. That some 60 percent of those folks also said they got their “facts” from the media only further emphasizes this conclusion. The credible wing of the mainstream media authoritatively knocks down this garbage time and time again. It only lives among the reality-challenged denizens of alternate universes of cyberspace bloggers, conservative talk radio hosts, and Fox News hucksters.

Clearly there are a lot of false believers walking among us. If the Pew poll’s numbers are accurate, 18 percent of the Americans surveyed recently—up from 12 percent two years ago when he campaigned for the White House and 11 percent right after he was inaugurated—say, in effect, they believe the president isn’t telling the truth whenever he professes to be a believer in Jesus Christ. Put another way, those 18 percent of respondents say they know more about Obama’s private religious life than what the man is telling the American public.

One of them is the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Bible-thumping son of evangelist Billy Graham. During an interview with CNN’s John King, Graham said people believe the president is a Muslim because “he was born a Muslim; the seed of Muslim is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim; his father gave him an Islamic name.”

Graham’s take on Islam’s patralineal inheritance stands in such stark contrast to evangelical Christianity’s core belief that the crass politics of his words emerge transparently clear. Christians don’t believe anyone is born into the faith on the basis of parentage or birth name. Rather, a Christian must profess a belief in Jesus Christ and become reborn by baptism. That often includes individuals whose parents may have been Jewish, Muslim or, perhaps, atheists.

As Graham surely knows, the president was raised in a nonreligious household and embraced Christianity in the early 1990s—something any evangelist under normal circumstances would celebrate. But the finer—and accurate—points of religion seem not to matter to those who traffic in cheap political trophies that distort the truth. They have a larger political mission—to tear down the president.

Still, some of us with our feet firmly planted on Earth feel compelled to take seriously these space cadets who are persuaded to embrace lies by the artfully worded deceit of Graham and his ilk. But some, among them television pundit James Carville—who addressed the subject on CNN’s “The Situation Room”—share my opinion. “I don’t [know] other than the fact people just are willing to believe anything or there are a lot of stupid people out there,” Carville said on a recent broadcast.

But for the most part the reasonable are shouted down by the foolish. Indeed, aren’t some of those shouting people the same overwhelmingly conservative critics of the president’s policies—the same ones who created a diversionary ruckus during the 2008 presidential campaign over Obama’s membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago? Didn’t they express fears of his discipleship under the tutelage of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor who baptized Obama into the Christian faith?

Even if that gambit failed to deny Obama the election, his crazed critics aren’t deterred. They keep trying because there is a purpose in the madness. As more and more people hear a big lie repeated and debated, more and more people succumb to the mistaken belief that there must be some truth buried in the pile somewhere. And that is why conservatives, clever as they are, keep saying something that most of them know to be a lie.

They disapprove of President Obama’s policies—and maybe even of the man himself—so they lie to damage his standing with the public. This, of course, has damning consequences. The collateral damage of telling the big lie over and over is that some people believe it. Witness the numbers reflected in the Pew poll, which are a clear indication of how divided Americans are about basic facts involving our president.

And maybe, for as long there’s a progressive in the White House, that’s what the conservatives really want. Undermine the office with lies and rumors and, perhaps, even the president’s supporters will doubt almost everything they hear in public spaces. If that’s their ultimate strategy, then the destination at the end of that road is the dissolution of all that binds our nation together. And there’s only one word to explain such an insidious and divisive political strategy—C-R-A-Z-Y.

When will conservative American patriots stand up to these crazies?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of polices on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.