Why do people still doubt President Obama's faith and birthplace?

Myths regarding Mr. Obama's background have yet to go away: A recent CNN/ORC Poll shows one in five adults say Obama was born outside the United States, and nearly one in three say he is Muslim.  

Evan Vucci/AP
In this Tuesday, July 28, 2015 file photo, President Barack Obama jokes with the media during a tour of Faffa Food in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Kenya and Ethiopia, which concluded Tuesday July 28, 2015, was marked by stirring images of throngs of thousands coming out to cheer the motorcade for this first visit by a sitting American president. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Old habits die hard. Conspiracy theories about Obama's background continue to dog the president, even after more than six years in the White House.

According to CNN/ORC Poll results released Sunday, one in five adults say Mr. Obama was born outside the United States, and nearly one in three say he is Muslim.  

Not surprisingly, conservatives are far more likely to cast doubt on Obama's religion and upbringing, with 43 percent of Republicans saying that Obama is Muslim. Only 56 percent said he was born in Honolulu.

Myths about Obama's religion are more common among whites, with a third of white adults saying Obama is Muslim, while only a fifth of nonwhite adults say so. The myth is also most common among those living in rural areas, where 37 percent of adults said Obama is Muslim.

Obama was born in Honolulu and is Christian. His father was born Muslim in Kenya, and Obama himself spent time as a child living in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country.

Even before winning the presidency, Obama faced doubts over his faith and birthplace. A 2007 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed reported that the rumor that Obama was Muslim first emerged in 2004, during his first run for Senate, and subsequently intensified with a viral e-mail that has been thoroughly debunked

In 2011, Donald Trump elevated birtherism from fringe dialogue to the mainstream media, stirring controversy and prompting the White House to release Obama’s long form birth certificate.   

That did not appear to satisfy Mr. Trump, who, now seeking the Republican nomination for President, still questions Obama’s birthplace

Public Policy Polling recently found that two-thirds of Trump’s supporters believe Obama is Muslim, and 61 percent believe he was born outside the US.

According to the CNN/ORC poll, adults who identify with the Tea Party are split over Obama’s birthplace and faith. Half believe the president was born in the US, while 47 percent believe he is Muslim.   

In 2012, a Pew Research poll showed 17 percent of adults believed Obama was Muslim, an increase from 2008.

Why does skepticism over his background persist?

In February, Vox’s Max Fisher theorized the rise of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Obama’s attempts to combat Islamophobia contribute to these conspiracies:

“The uptick in American, and particularly Republican, views of Obama as Muslim may also in part be explained by the rise of ISIS, which political opponents have seized on to argue that Obama is soft on Islamist terror. While these opponents do not say that Obama is soft on Islamist terror because he is Muslim, they could easily feed into preexisting suspicion of Obama based on his race and background.

In more recent months, Obama has also attempted to defray the tide of American Islamophobia that has coincided with ISIS's rise, in part by correctly defending Islam and Muslims against bigotry. Increased belief that Obama "deep down" believes in Islam may be an unfortunate cost of this effort.” 

In 2010, The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier also considered what’s behind these misperceptions: 

“If Americans increasingly are uncertain about the religious nature of Obama’s life, it may be because he does not mention it or make it as central a part of his political activities as did his immediate predecessors. And that could be a problem, because US voters generally like their politicians to be overtly religious.”

That was before the White House released Obama’s birth certificate. And since then he has been more open about his faith. In June, Obama sat down with Marc Maron for his podcast “WTF.” The president talked about his parents’ faith, saying his father became an atheist and his mother a secular humanist (transcription here):

Obama: … [My mother] thought all religions had something to say, and she thought all cultures were fascinating.

Maron: So you weren’t brought up with that, with the religion thing, really, at all.

Obama: No. I mean, we’d go to church for Easter sometimes. But we had a Shinto temple across the street from the apartment where we were living. And when I was in Indonesia, that’s a Muslim country, so you’d have mosques. But she instilled in me these core values that, for a while, I thought were corny. And then, right around 20, you start realizing, you know, honesty, kindness, hard work, responsibility, looking after other people. They’re actually pretty good values. They’re home-spun. They come out of my Kansas roots. But they’re the things that ultimately ended up being most important to me in how I try to build my life.

Publicly, Obama has mocked apprehensions over his place of birth, often joking about his “home,” Kenya. Almost all of his speeches at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner have included a joke about being Muslim or born in a different country.

And oddly enough, misconceptions over Obama’s faith are not exclusive to him being Muslim. According to the CNN/ORC poll, 4 percent of adults believe he is Catholic, 2 percent believe he is Mormon, and 1 percent believe he is Jewish.

But it’s no laughing matter for Republicans who feel like the party has been hijacked.

During a 2008 campaign town hall, Senator John McCain defended Obama after a woman claimed “I can’t trust Obama … he’s an Arab.”

“No ma’am,” said Senator McCain, “He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about.”

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