Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama bows his head in prayer prior to speaking at University of Notre Dame during commencement ceremonies in South Bend, Indiana, in 2009. Obama's religion has become a political issue, with increasing numbers of Americans believing him to be Muslim.

Why doesn’t Obama wear his religion on his sleeve?

What will it take for Obama to convince the world that he’s a Christian, or at least not a Muslim? Teaching Baptist Sunday School like Jimmy Carter? Putting a 'My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter' bumper sticker on Air Force One?

What will it take for President Obama to convince the world that he’s a Christian … or at least not a Muslim?

Teaching Baptist Sunday School like Jimmy Carter? Putting a “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper sticker on Air Force One? Making a pilgrimage to Lourdes?

Day after day, the White House has to keep knocking down questions about the President’s faith – a major distraction when Obama would rather be cheer-leading the economy, stumping for Democrats facing tough reelection fights this fall, or just hanging out with Michelle and the girls on Martha’s Vineyard these waning days of summer.

IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House

The current flap stems from the Pew Research Center’s finding that the number of Americans who believe Obama is Muslim has swelled to 18 percent (including 34 percent of conservative Republicans).

Now, we would never agree with the headline on Joel Achenbach’s blog on the subject in the Washington Post: “Are Americans total numbskulls?” But as Achenbach points out, “Disinformation remains powerful and infectious, and … large elements of the country distrust the official story about anything.”

It gets worse. An earlier Harris Poll finds that “a quarter of Tea Party supporters believe he may be the Anti-Christ.”

The Rev. Franklin Graham (son of famed preacher Billy Graham), who has prayed with Obama, says he takes the president at his word that he’s Christian.

But in an interview with CNN’s John King this week, Graham said, "I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name.”

Well, maybe. Obama’s father left the family scene when the future president was two years old, and although he’s reached out to Muslims worldwide there’s no evidence that he’s personally embraced Islam. (Franklin Graham is not exactly a disinterested party here; he has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion.”)

Obama’s problem may be that he takes the New Testament injunction about praying in the closet too literally – for a politician, anyway. (See Matthew, chapter 6.)

If not in the closet, then at least through the privacy of his BlackBerry, which is how he gets his daily early-morning devotionals from Joshua DuBois, the young Pentecostal minister (with a graduate degree in international affairs from Princeton) who heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

There are also conference calls in which Obama prays with clergy of various Christian denominations. And he’s actually been spotted praying together with the Republican congressional leadership … although it was in silence, and their prayers of petition may have canceled each other out.

But the Obama family has not joined a Washington-area church, noting that the presence of the First Family (not to mention a platoon of Secret Service agents) can be a major disruption for parishioners.

In having to rebut charges that he’s a Muslim, Obama seems to be in good company. Abe Lincoln’s political opponents rumored that he was Roman Catholic, Franklin Roosevelt’s that he was secretly Jewish. There is still a sizable chunk of voters who would not vote for Mitt Romney for president because he’s Mormon – not a Christian religion, some theologians argue.

But in the end, as most polls show, Obama’s success as president will hinge on things other than his religious faith, no matter how publicly he expresses it.

For as Democratic consultant Paul Begala told Politico: “I don't think Americans would care if he were a Druid, so long as we were creating jobs. It is still the economy, stupid.”

[UPDATE: This 2004 interview with Obama about his religion may be instructive.]

IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House

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