The Muslim myth about Obama: He's in good company

The bigoted and ignorant allegations that President Obama is a Muslim call to mind slurs against past US presidents. Critics called Lincoln a Catholic and labeled Jefferson an atheist.

The right wing’s challenge of President Obama’s religious beliefs and the whispering campaign that he is a closet Muslim are more than just shameful bigotry. They are an attack on religious freedom.

I have yet to see a scintilla of evidence that Barack Obama is a Muslim. But so what if he were? The US Constitution makes clear: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And doesn’t the First Amendment guarantee religious freedom to all of us?

Who are these people who preach this ignorance and bigotry, who equate the monotheistic religion of 1.57 billion human beings with evil?

The number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim has jumped substantially since March 2009, to 18 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. That’s frightening. But it says more about the 18 percent’s ignorance of Islam than it does about the president’s religious beliefs.

Where's the evidence?

Has Obama ever taken a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram (The Sacred Mosque)? Has anyone seen video of the president walking around the Kaaba stone in a white sheet? That ritual is televised round the clock on Arabic television around the world but no one has ever seen a single frame of Obama there.

Perhaps someone has a photo of Obama down on his knees on a prayer rug in the Oval Office? Pilgrimage and daily prayers are just two of the five pillars of Islam that all followers must perform – the others are the profession of faith, charity, and fasting. Sure, the president looks undernourished but not because he fasted during the month of Ramadan. He’s probably reed-thin because he worries a lot. If Obama is a Muslim, he’s a pretty lousy one.

The fallacy that Obama is a secret Muslim has most recently been nurtured by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He said of the president, “He was born a Muslim, and his father gave him an Islamic name” and “the seed of Islam passed through the father.”

Actually, Obama says his father was a committed atheist, but Obama’s critics never seem to allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.

Reckless remarks

What makes Mr. Graham’s remarks so reckless is that by implying Obama used to be a Muslim, but now embraces Christianity, Graham has declared the president guilty of apostasy in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Muslims. Under sharia law, converting out of Islam, “the one true faith,” is punishable by death. So Graham has virtually declared open season on the president to any zealous followers of the prophet Muhammad who feel it is their duty to enforce Islamic statutes and murder apostates.

A second, equally dangerous aspect of this imbroglio is the theocratic arrogance that would have one group of believers relegating to themselves the right to define who is a “true Christian” and who is not. Whatever happened to “judge not that ye be not judged?” Why do Christian fundamentalists feel empowered to administer a litmus test of a president’s religiosity – in direct opposition to the Constitution?

If Obama can take any comfort in all this, it’s that several of his predecessors were similarly victims of sophomoric, inconsistent, or downright bigoted religious attitudes.

Historical double standards

Take Jimmy Carter. It is difficult to imagine a more devout president. He was a churchgoing Baptist who prayed daily and knew his Bible backward and forward. But Mr. Carter’s intellectualism offended the religious right in 1980 and the evangelical Christians abandoned a “born again” Carter, flocking instead to Ronald Reagan, who rarely attended church during his eight years in the White House.

Mr. Reagan had some fine qualities, but strict attendance at a traditional church was not among them. Reagan was superstitious and often heeded horoscopes. According to former White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, the president’s public schedule was for a time guided by Nancy Reagan’s consultations with her astrologer.

Alleging Obama is a Muslim is like saying Abraham Lincoln was a Baptist because his father was – or, as many thought when Lincoln ran for president, that he was Roman Catholic because as an attorney he once defended a Catholic priest. George Washington almost never referred to Jesus Christ in his written letters or papers, and he didn’t take communion. Thomas Jefferson was called an atheist. Today, 66 percent of the American public can’t agree that Obama is Christian.

Not surprisingly, the great majority of those who say Obama is Muslim also disapprove of his job performance, so the label is less a considered theological judgment than a mindless insult. Still, Americans are wading deeper into that swamp where Caesar and God are mixed together.

The irony is that this unwise integration of politics and religion is what many Muslims practice. The more Muslim political leaders mention the prophet Muhammad, “peace be upon him,” the more right-eous he is seen to be. Are we to become a nation whose presidents are judged by how frequently they call on the name of the founder of Christianity?

Given our politicians’ demonstrable penchant for hypocrisy, that’s truly scary.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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