Deep down, more than half of Republicans are still convinced that President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
According to a recent poll by the University of California, Merced, those Republicans are joined by 26% of Independents and 10% of Democrats. On Wednesday, Alex Theodoridis, the professor who conducted the poll, released the results in a Washington Post column arguing that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's reluctance to comment on Obama's religion actually made him a moderate within the GOP.
Overall, 88% of the Republican Party believes that President Obama is either Muslim, atheist or, like Gov. Walker, responded "I don't know." Just 9% of Republicans believe that the president is Christian. But skepticism about Obama's religion, or at least the belief that it's something other than Christianity, appear to be widespread among most Americans when you ask if what they believe "deep down" on the subject:
At the Washington Post, the professor explained why he phrased the question so specifically:
Previous survey questions about Obama's religion tend to sound like a pop quiz, such as "Do you happen to know the religious faith of Barack Obama?" But by asking what Obama believes deep down, I was intentionally granting respondents license to stray from the president's self-reported Christian faith. This reveals a prevalent willingness to distrust this president or categorize him as "the other" in terms of religion.
The "debate" is practically old enough to vote: Obama has repeatedly dismissed questions about his religious affiliation, saying he is a devout Christian and brushing off rumors that he follows another faith by calling out opponents for making it sound "as if that were somehow a bad thing." Though suspicions that the president secretly follows the faith first promoted by the Prophet Muhammad in the year 610 C.E. have typically been considered a fringe belief similar to conspiracy theories that he isn't an American citizen, Theodoridis' poll results indicate that this belief has rapidly gained legitimacy among a large subset of Americans.
Skepticism of Obama's religious preference occasionally enters the mainstream policy discourse, as it did when conservative opponents wondered why the president was reluctant to label the Islamic State militant group an "Islamic" terrorist group. The White House insisted the president was simply trying to avoid legitimizing Islamic State's ideology by accepting its supposed basis in Islam. But critics like right-wing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani painted President Obama's opposition as somehow rooted in a secret ideological preference, asking "What's wrong with this man that he can't stand up and say there's a part of Islam that's sick?"
As Mic reported in its coverage of Giuliani's statements, the "othering" of Obama has clear racial overtones:
One survey of 295 students was even able to provide empirical evidence that negative perceptions of the president's inherent "Americanism" were strongly correlated with other racist beliefs and tendencies. By 2011, just more than half of polled Republicans admitted to suspicions of the president's true citizenship.
According to Theodoridis, it's unclear just where the movement to paint Obama as a Muslim started, but it has become a widespread phenomenon encountered very commonly in certain circles.
"It is hard to know what has driven the skepticism about Obama's religion, but it certainly seems that its spread has been helped by both mass- and elite-level fuel," Theodoridis told Mic over email. "In some quarters, there has been a willingness from very early on to doubt his authenticity."
"What is actually more interesting in my poll results is that so many people didn't say 'I don't know' and that so many of those answers were something other than 'Christian,'" he added. "The meaningful percentage of Democrats who chose 'spiritual' may indicate the increased rate of people who categorized themselves that way in society and a suspicion by many that politicians say they are religious even if they are not, because to do otherwise would be a political liability."
But such widespread skepticism about a president's religion seems to be unique to Obama, Theodoridis said.
"I can't think of anything quite like this when it comes to a president's religion. The issue with John F. Kennedy and Al Smith was very different," he commented. "It was not that people doubted they were Catholics, but that some people had a problem with them being Catholic. The same may have been true to some extent with Romney. There was some discussion of [Franklin D. Roosevelt's] Jewish associates. And, [Thomas] Jefferson's religion was a topic of conversation. None of that, though, was like the discussion surrounding Obama."