Why do 1 in 5 Americans think President Obama is a Muslim?

A Pew Research Center poll suggests that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. (He's not.) The poll also offers reasons – some curious – as to why people were misinformed.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama approaches the lectern on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Thursday. Apparently, 1 percent of Americans say they learned about Obama being a Muslim in his own biography. We missed that chapter.

Wow – a substantial and growing number of Americans believe President Obama is Muslim. That’s what a new Pew Research Center poll says, anyway.

Fully 18 percent of respondents to the Pew survey picked “Muslim” when asked Obama’s religion, up from 11 percent who answered that way in March 2009.

Where are Americans getting their information about Obama’s religion? We ask that because, on this subject, a substantial and growing number of them are wrong. (Obama is Christian. We’ll say that up front, in case some of you are hazy on this point yourselves.)

Pew asked about that, as well. Of those who believe Obama to be Muslim, 60 percent said they learned that from the media. As to which media, 16 percent said TV, 6 percent said newspapers, and 3 percent said magazines.

One percent said they learned about Obama being Islamic from his book. Those people must have been skimming. No one mentioned the “Vote” blog. We don’t know whether to be proud or insulted.

Interestingly, 10 percent of those with this mistaken impression said that they learned about Obama’s religion from his own behaviors or his own words. The poll was taken prior to Obama’s statements supporting construction of a mosque near the World Trade Center site.

But remember, 82 percent of respondents here correctly knew that Obama is not a Muslim, so it is possible to make too much of this. Plus, the Pew survey report is 38 pages long, and the Muslim question takes up only a small part of it. Reading the poll through, two far more consequential points emerge:

Is Obama a religious cipher?

Asked Obama’s religion, 34 percent rightly said he was Christian, but a plurality of 43 percent said they did not know. That’s a jump of nine percent since March 2009.

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.

For instance, this same Pew poll shows that 61 percent of Americans think it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs.

Is increased uncertainty about Obama’s faith a factor contributing to his overall slide in the polls? It’s possible. Though, to be fair, the Pew poll also asked respondents whether Obama himself mentioned his religious faith too much, too little, or about the right amount, and 53 percent picked “right amount.”

"The president is obviously – he's Christian. He prays every day. He communicates with his religious adviser every single day," White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters Thursday. "There's a group of pastors that he takes counsel from on a regular basis. His faith is very important to him, but it's not something that's a topic of conversation every single day."

Republicans and religion

It’s no surprise that according to Pew results 69 percent of self-identified white evangelical Protestants said they were Republicans. Large majorities of evangelicals have voted GOP for years.

But Pew also found that a plurality of mainstream Protestants, 49 percent, now say they are Republicans. (Forty-one percent said they were Democrats.) That’s a GOP gain of four percentage points since the last presidential election.

Fully 50 of non-Hispanic Catholics now say they identify with Republicans, up from 41 percent two years ago. The GOP is even making gains among Jewish voters, who have long been reliably Democratic. One-third of those who said they were Jewish also said they were Republicans, up from 20 percent in 2008.

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