The poll numbers showing that 16 percent of the public thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim has been seized upon by all sorts of opinion gamers as proof of something or other.
What makes that figure so juicy is that it's jumped recently five percentage points (50%).
According to which commentators you consult, the most likely causes or this sad state are public ignorance of even the plainest news or the right wing's crusade to destroy Obama's legitimacy.
Both reasons have merit. But there's another factor that begs its way into the picture: the President's inability to identify with a religious tradition.
You've got to get the public image straight right off the bat, not dilly-dally about where you might go to church beyond your swearing in. Obama seems to be still skittish about plunking himself in a regular church setting after the bruising he took from his association with the pull-no-punches preacher, Jeremiah Wright, a United Church of Christ pastor in Chicago. Even then it was unclear if Obama actually belonged there.
He's continued to skirt the issue. He apparently auditioned several churches in D.C. but so far as I know doesn't have a "church home" as such. That leaves him open to questions about whether he is really a Christian or only playing at one. It doesn't matter to me if he isn't. It's the murkiness that gets confusing and opens the door to rumor and false labeling.
The right wing attack feeds on this ambiguity, fueled in part by the President's middle name and his openness toward Muslims.
Obama has clearly spelled out his faith in his writing. His testimony is compelling and in many ways reflects the experience of many Americans for whom faith is a journey rather than a given heritage. He could connect on that level.
But these days you get nowhere without visuals. He has needed to put himself in the public eye as a worshiper in a particular place, shaking hands with the pastor after the service and sending his daughters to the Sunday School. If he doesn't hold those beliefs, that's another story. Just don't expect the public to figure it out.
Most past presidents have taken care of this detail one way or another, lest they invite public disdain for being agnostics or atheists.
Ike said it didn't matter what religion you had so long as you had one and traipsed off occasionally to the big Disciples of Christ church in D.C.
Is there anyone who doesn't know Kennedy was a Catholic?
Johnson didn't spend much time around churches but his origins in Baptist-soaked Texas provided him cover. Nixon did "designer" religion. He went to great lengths to invite Billy Graham and others celebrity clergy to hold White House services as an
alternative to going to someone else's.
Gerald Ford came across as a generic Christian without having to do much, though he did attend Episcopal churches in full public view. Could anyone miss Jimmy Carter's church allegiance, as open and intentional as Ronald Reagan's was, at best, inferential. Reagan melded himself into evangelical piety while rarely setting foot in a sanctuary.
Bush Sr. epitomized patrician Episcopalianism and showed up regularly to seal the deal. His son did a variation of the Reagan routine, joining the evangelical chorus which, not accidentally, had right wing political ambitions. Bush Jr.'s story of his conversion fit the mold and guaranteed him a religious reputation. Bill Clinton brought with him a temperate version of that southern, born-again Christianity that was sufficient to subject his sexual escapades to sharper judgment than it otherwise might have been.
By comparion to most, Obama's image is blurry and too private. Like it or not, it's necessary to pitch a tent on somebody's turf -- and to stay the course.
Eisenhower said it didn't matter what religion you were so long as you had some, then trotted off to the big Disciples of Christ church to certify his own place.
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.