Here’s a new item to add to the growing list of fake facts dominating the news over the past year. Already on the list are death panels, a foreign-born president, the hoax of global warming, and rampant discrimination against white people. Now we can add a new fake fact: President Obama is a Muslim.
Despite the obvious truth that there is nothing wrong with having a Muslim president, the reality is that Obama is a Christian. Most Americans know this, but over the past year a growing minority seem to have misremembered his religion. It’s bizarre. After all, we’re not talking about something complicated, like health care reform. All we have to remember is one word. Christian. The president is a Christian.
And yet a new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that nearly 20 percent of Americans believe the president is Muslim—an increase from 11 percent a year ago. Only about one-third believe he is a Christian—a steep decrease from 48 percent a year ago.
In terms of political affiliation, more than a third of conservative Republicans believe the president to be a Muslim. How do they know? About 60 percent say from the media. Back in the day, conservatives used to make a clear distinction between facts and opinions. Certain things were true and others were not, they said. You couldn’t reshape reality to fit your preference. Truth was stubborn. Facts didn’t budge.
Indeed, a conservative criticism of liberals was that they were a bunch of postmodernists who treated reality as subjective and truth as malleable in order to suit their whims. The alleged crime of liberals was that they encouraged conflicting, divergent truths based upon differences in race, gender, and class. Conservatives vehemently opposed this notion. Objective, universal truth did exist and deserved to be defended.
Now we come to find out that conservatives are closet postmodernists. They are the ones championing subjective reality and malleable truth. When encountering factual reality—as in, President Obama was born in the United States and is a Christian—they say, “Well, you have your beliefs and I have mine.”
But in order to have a healthy democracy, we need to know what is factually true and what isn’t. Reality needs to be a ground rule for debate. Otherwise, everything is up for grabs. For instance, looking out my window right now, I see a sharp-lined horizon that looks like the end of the world. The Bible speaks of the four corners of the earth. I believe in the Bible. And so I believe that the earth is flat. You don’t? You say you have scientific evidence that proves it’s round? Well, you have your beliefs and I have mine.
The news media bears measurable blame for spreading—and not correcting—misinformation, distortions, and lies. From blogs and tweets to websites and videos, the Internet supports many silly and dangerous views. We need the news media to be a reliable filter, not merely a megaphone. It’s their job to clear up the pollution by distinguishing fact from fiction. This goes beyond partisan debate. It’s in the self-interest of conservatives, liberals, and progressives to do so. Otherwise, we are on shaky ground.
To carry subjective reality to an extreme, I might say that based on what I’ve observed Newt Gingrich is a secret agent of Al Qaeda, helping Bin Laden recruit terrorists by echoing his message of an American war on Islam. Sharon Angle is a secret Democrat recruited to re-elect Harry Reid by posing as a right-wing Republican Senatorial candidate. And the Tea Party movement is a secret creation of Starbucks, which aims to make a dent in the growing number of American tea drinkers by linking their beverage to the extremist fringe.
Of course I have no proof. No matter. I have my beliefs and you have yours.
To get back to the Pew poll. It turns out that there is proof of Obama’s Christianity— repeated public declarations of belief from the president himself in his books, his speeches, his conversations. Last Easter, for instance, Obama spoke to Christian leaders at a White House breakfast, professing his faith in the risen Christ. He said, “As Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered—by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul.”
One of the pastors attending that Easter breakfast was Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of a Houston mega-church. Afterward, Rev. Caldwell told The Religion News Service he was “galled” by the number of Americans who didn’t believe the president was a Christian. “Never in modern history has a president said: ‘I am a Christian,’ and others said, ‘No, you’re not,’” Rev. Caldwell said. “It’s stupid and an insult to him.”
Conservatives, please listen to Rev. Caldwell.
Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress.