How Obama can respond to the popular misperception that he is Muslim

A Pew poll that finds nearly 1 in 5 Americans sees Barack Obama as a Muslim can be answered by looking at his past, especially his 2006 speech about faith in politics.

President Barack Obama prays with Christian leaders in the Blue Room of the White House, prior to the Easter Prayer Breakfast, April 6, 2010.

Questions of faith bedeviled Barack Obama long before he became president. In 2004, for instance, a Republican opponent for his Senate seat in Illinois, Alan Keyes, said, “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.”

Now Mr. Obama, a Christian, must deal with a poll that finds 18 percent of Americans think he is a Muslim, up from 11 percent last year.

The best answer to this misperception by nearly 1 in 5 people is a 2006 speech that Obama gave in which he called on Democrats to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people.”

He also warned that “people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool to attack and belittle and divide” – a criticism which he could repeat now as a result of a long campaign by many of his opponents to paint him as a Muslim – not that there is anything wrong with being a Muslim, as Jerry Seinfeld might say.

Near the time of his speech, there was a Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll that found 54 percent ruled out voting for a Muslim as president. (Other results of that poll: 10 percent of adults were unwilling to vote for a Catholic; 15 percent wouldn’t vote for a Jew; 21 percent would not favor an evangelical Christian; 37 percent would not vote for a Mormon.)

Obama readily admits he came to religion only as an adult. His Kenyan father, whom he barely knew, was born a Muslim but became an atheist. His mother was spiritual but against organized religion, while her parents were nonpracticing Protestants. Obama took up Christianity after becoming a community organizer in Chicago.

“I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death,” he said in the speech. “It is an active, palpable agent in the world. It is a source of hope.”

He’s never flinched from acknowledging his middle name, Hussein (a common name in Kenya). He also distanced himself from his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, after the minister made what appeared to be anti-American comments from the pulpit.

True to his faith, Obama dislikes politicians who pretend to be religious, which may help explain his very low-profile attendance at Christian services, or his private consultations for spiritual guidance with prominent Christian leaders such as Dr. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Florida’s Northland church.

In the speech, he warned elected leaders against “inauthentic expressions of faith – the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps, off rhythm, to the gospel choir.”

As a result of this poll, however, Obama may decide to be seen more in Christian settings – similar to how John F. Kennedy had to give a speech denying he would follow the Vatican’s bidding.

His modesty about his faith is a good Christian trait. But as a politician in today’s misperceiving America, Obama has to deal with some people who want to see your faith on your sleeve.

If Obama wants, as he said in 2006, a “deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country,” now is a good time to start it.

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