Press-Republican

July 2, 2012

Faith in the Obama brand

Terry Mattingly, On Religion
Press-Republican

---- — Here's good news for President Barack Obama: The slice of Americans who believe he is a Muslim is down to 11 percent, according to a new Gallup Poll.

That number was up to 18 percent two years ago, in a Pew Research Center survey, after hitting 11 percent in 2009.

This time around, 52 percent of Democrats knew the president is a Protestant Christian, as opposed to 24 percent of Republicans. Only 3 percent of Democrats said Obama is a Muslim, while 18 percent of Republicans thought so. The number of Gallup respondents who answered "none/no religion" was fairly even -- 10 percent of independents, 7 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats.

In many ways, the most remarkable number in these polls is that -- after years of public professions by Obama -- nearly 137 million Americans answer "don't know" when asked to name his faith. That's 44 percent of those polled in this recent Gallup effort.

"It's clear most Democrats recognize that he is a liberal Christian or they just don't care," said Mark Edward Taylor, author of "Branding Obamessiah: The Rise of an American Idol." Meanwhile, on the other side, Republicans are "much more likely to say that they are confused about his faith or that they doubt he is really a Christian.

"That could be what some people really mean when they say they don't know Obama's religion," he said.

Meanwhile, there are liberals who think Obama is lying when he says he is a believer. HBO comedian Bill Maher spoke for this flock when he said: "If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think (Obama would say) he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really."

From this perspective, noted Taylor, it's crucial that the president's father was a skeptical Muslim and that Obama has, at various times, described his mother as "an agnostic" and "a lonely witness for secular humanism," as well as "a Christian from Kansas." Young Obama grew up with Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," as well as the Bible and the Quran.

Still, there's plenty of evidence the rising politico paid attention during his years at Trinity United Church of Christ.

One thing's for sure: Obama didn't learn his call-and-response pulpit skills at Harvard Law School. He plugged into a liberal African-American congregation in order to build his South Chicago credibility, while hitting the golf links to learn how to reach into executive suites.

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words "change," "hope" and "believe." In his book, Taylor says the key is that the "believe" component centered on Obama's image, talent and personal story -- not a creed. The candidate offered "himself to America," rather than political or religious specifics.

"At no time did Obama declare, 'I am the Messiah.' Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one," argued Taylor. "Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. ... He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption."

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans. Yet millions of other Americans balk at Obama's privatized definition of "sin" -- during a 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani -- as "being out of alignment with my values." In that same interview, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that "whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing."

Taylor is convinced this division -- between two very different views of faith -- is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

"All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don't know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not," he said. "When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama."

Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS.