Depressing story of the week

obamaWhat role did journalists play in the fact that one out of every ten Americans believes Illinois Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is of a religion other than Christianity? A depressing poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that ten percent of Americans mistakenly believe that Obama is a Muslim.

Here’s the Religion News Service report on the numbers:

While a majority–53 percent–identify Obama as a Christian, 16 percent of conservative Republicans, 16 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 19 percent of rural Americans believe the Illinois senator is Muslim.

About a third of Americans said they don’t know what Obama’s religious beliefs are, and 9 percent of that group said it’s because they’ve heard different information about his faith.

Confusion over the candidate’s religion crosses party lines. Fourteen percent of all Republicans, 10 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of independents think he’s Muslim, according to the survey.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans said they had heard something about controversial sermon sound bites from Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that have been circulating in the media.

The numbers are depressing, but can they be that surprising, when you have media reports on rumors that come close to treating the story as if it might be true? There was some speculation that the whole Wright story would help put those rumors away, but sadly, Americans remain shockingly uninformed.

An interesting way to slice this story would be to look at whether or not these persistent rumors actually hurt Obama’s popularity. In other words, would these one in ten Americans consider supporting Obama if they became properly informed as to his religious identity, or does the mistaken belief even keep them from voting for him?

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  • steve

    Might also ask what role does the Internet play in this depressing stat? I find it disturbing that while many people, according to polls, distrust newspapers, I know of some people who believe if it’s on the Internet it must be true, including e-mails they get slamming one candidate or another with cherry picked quotes, grossly distorted facts and outright lies.

  • Brian

    I’m pretty sure something like a third of people will tell pollsters that they believe Elvis is alive.

    I also believe that 30-40% of people tell pollsters that they don’t believe “the official story” about 9/11 (now that’s legitimately scary, if true).

    So the fact that roughly 10% of people guess that someone with the name Barack Hussein Obama is Muslim is not in the slightest bit “depressing.” I’m shocked that it’s so low. In his own book he recounts telling a barber his name was Barack and being asked “You a Muslim?”

  • Barbara

    Perhaps people associate Rev. Wright’s vitriolic preaching with Muslim imams who inveigh against “the Great Satan.” The UCC is not all that well known as a denomination in many parts of the country.

  • FrGregACCA

    Conflation always produces interesting, but often problemmatic, results. Many people I’ve talked to who at least wondered if Obama were Muslim speak of his having been “sworn in” on a copy of the Q’uran. Obviously, there is a conflation here between Obama and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, who is Muslim and was, indeed, sworn in, at least ceremonially, on a copy of the Q’uran (once owned by Thomas Jefferson). Ironically of course, Obama, whose name sounds “Muslim” is the Christian, while Ellison is the Muslim.

  • FW Ken

    Not to play with words (although this is a journalism site :-) ), but while I know that Sen. Obama is a Christian, or, more precisely, I know that he is a baptized member of a United Church of Christ congregation. Knowing something about the UCC, however, I don’t really know what his “religious beliefs” are. What would he answer if he were asked Mr. Mattingly’s 3 questions?

  • Jim J

    I suspect that willful ignorance is to blame for the statistic. Most people will believe whatever they choose, and persist in this choice despite any number of mountains of factual evidence to the contrary.

  • Jerry

    Sure, willful ignorance plays a part. But surprising as it is to many of us, most people don’t pay much attention to the news. I’m surrounded by such people at work. Their life revolves around work, raising their kids and church. They pay very little attention to daily news.

  • Andy

    I have to agree with Jerry. In January 2004 a woman I worked with didn’t know about the Iraq invasion, and thought Donald Rumsfeld was a new employee. Some people are shockingly uniformed.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Jerry, it doesn’t help that much of the “daily news” as provided by the MSM focuses on matters of national politics that, frankly, are close to irrelevant for many people. Just look at the percentage of stories on this blog that deal with some political angle. MSM reporters are obsessed with politics, and average readers here in Flyover Country are weary of it.

  • Ben


    I keep hearing that refrain on this blog that reporters care overly much about politics. I guess I’d like to understand that sentiment a little more. What would a person who cares about being informed but doesn’t care about politics be interested in knowing? By “politics” do you actually mean horse-race coverage as opposed to issues? Or do you simply doubt that politics represents the collective efforts of we the citizens to govern ourselves? Is there some area where that happens more clearly? In church, maybe? I’m legitimately trying to understand this anti-politics refrain. I’d like to cover more frequently what people truly find important, but I have a hard time thinking politics is not an important arena.

  • danr

    Hey Ben, I’ll let Chris answer for himself… but one point I’d raise is the perception not that there’s too much coverage of politics, but rather arguably too much politicizing of so many stories – whether they’re overtly political or not.

    That’s largely the purpose of this blog, from my perspective… to advance the theory that the media
    a) covers religion too little in general,
    b) sees the religious thread (or “ghost”) too little in many diverse stories (political and otherwise), and/or
    c) often seem especially interested in “religious stories” only insofar as they intersect with politics (which admittedly is often).

  • Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    It could be that the much ran story of Rev’d Wright was, in the end, just a counter-Muslim-Malox-moment. Better a crazed Rev’d in the attic than, oh, a religion of peace in the past.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    It could be that people aren’t sure. He doesn’t display Christian beliefs/attitudes except when he wants to make a political point, and then the analogy he offers is stilted. One may wonder if religion might be a talisman he uses rather than a force from within.

  • Jettboy

    To follow up on John L. Hoh, Jr.’s comments: Many of those who believe Obama is a Muslim don’t come to that conclusion out of ignorance. They believe he is a Muslim because they don’t believe him when he says he is a Christian. THey consider him a closet Muslim using Christianity as a political cloak. Why they believe this is a better news story than that they do.

  • Joshua W. Burton

    This poll fails to distinguish between people who are aware that Islam is a religion making theological claims incompatible with mainstream Christianity, and people who use the word “Muslim” simply as an epithet.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Ben (#10),

    Sorry, but I didn’t see your question until now. danr (#11) is correct, but there’s more to it than that. In a nutshell, much of the MSM is fixated on national politics and specifically the two parties at a national level. Most reporters, of course, vote with one of those two parties, and many are quite passionate about “their” party. This affiliation and passion tend to bias their reporting on almost every issue. It doesn’t help that they:
    * Stay cloistered in D.C., NYC, and other cities where politics is SO IMPORTANT
    * Hang with people who agree with them
    * Are completely out of touch with most of the country

    As a result, they:
    * See nearly every story through a political lens
    * Find a political angle in nearly every story; if it’s not there, they either ignore the story or invent the angle
    * Fervently believe that readers — at least, people who are as smart as they are — feel just as passionately about politics and, of course, share their views; the rest are idiots who aren’t worth any time
    * Tend to generalize about folks outside the IMPORTANT cities, usually operating from a set of false assumptions

    Politics for many MSM reporters is like sports is for most of us ordinary folks, and those reporters certainly root for their home team.

    I lived just outside the Beltway for 12 years and found myself getting caught up in D.C. politics. It’s tough to avoid when half of your “local” newscast is from Capital Hill. One event during my time there was the Clarence Thomas hearings. My wife and I, like most DCers, sat riveted in front of our TVs for hours. One night, I called one of my sisters in Ohio to discuss the hearings. Here is my recollection of the conversation:

    Chris: Are you watching the hearings?

    Sister: What hearings?

    Chris: The Clarence Thomas hearings!

    Sister: (pauses) No, we are heading out to a high school game. Why?

    Now that I’m back in Ohio, I’ll take a high school game over anything happening in good old D.C.