Faith, Politics and Muslim-Baiting

by Dan Quinn

A piece in the Washington Post today reveals insights into President Obama’s Christian faith — and gives readers some perspective into how easily the right uses faith as a weapon to divide Americans for political gain.

The story notes a circle of Christian spiritual advisers who privately counsel and pray with the president and begins with this vignette:

As he flew aboard Air Force One to Chicago on his 49th birthday earlier this month, President Obama dialed three Christian pastors to pray with him.

On an airborne conference call, he kidded with the religious leaders about being abandoned by his wife and daughters, who were away on vacation and at camp. As he celebrated his birthday, he was in a reflective mood. He told them he wanted to pray about the year that had passed, what’s really important in life and the challenges ahead.

“That was simply something that he wanted to do at his initiative because it was important to him,” said Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor who was on the call and who is part of a small circle of spiritual advisers who frequently talk to Obama by phone.

The prayer session, which was not publicized and which neither the White House nor the ministers sought to bring to light, reflects Obama’s decision to keep his public expressions of religious faith to a minimum. Hunter said the president often reaches out to pastors for private spiritual conversation.

Just two days earlier, another Washington Post story noted a poll showing a growing percentage of Americans (though still a minority) think President Obama is actually a secret Muslim. Conservatives were most likely to hold that opinion, facts be damned. Why has this distortion spread?

Perhaps it’s because supposedly responsible people say such irresponsibly misleading things — people like Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Bill Graham. Here, for example, is part of what the younger Graham said Thursday on CNN:

“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. Now it’s obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That’s what he says he has done, I cannot say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”

Other people on the religious right are even more insulting in questioning President Obama’s explicitly professed faith. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams — who later became chair of the Texas Republican Party — viciously attacked then-candidate Obama’s faith:

“While many question Barak Hussein Obama’s ‘religion’ …, the more important question is whether he has a ‘relationship’ with Jesus Christ because that is the only HOPE that any of us have to obtain eternal life. I personally see NO evidence that Obama has that kind of ‘saving faith.’”

Here’s “Pastor” Rick Scarborough, head of the Texas-based far-right group Vision America, in a September press release last year:

“Our President has made it clear where his allegiance lies by hosting a Muslim prayer breakfast in the White House but refusing to participate in the National Day of Prayer. . .”

When far-right members of the Texas State Board of Education last spring asked that new social studies standards identify President Obama with his middle name “Hussein,” even a fellow Republican on the board noted that everyone understood the cynical motive behind the move.

Suggesting that he is secretly a Muslim or that he is at least lying about being a Christian has long been part of a strategy — along with the equally discredited charge that he was really born in another country — to stoke fears that Barack Obama is somehow un-American, foreign and dangerous. Sadly, it has become an effective political weapon.

Among the most vile Muslim-baiters is conservative commentator Pamela Geller, an extremist who has done  much to spread irrational fear and anger over the proposed location of a Muslim community center in New York. Earlier this summer she “reported” that an Egyptian official was claiming that President Obama had confessed to being a secret Muslim. Geller used that “revelation” to compare President Obama to a Nazi SS officer:

“This is akin to an SS officer getting elected president during WW II. Every country in the free world must be cognizant of such a catastrophic sea change in the leadership of the free world (as witnessed by events over the past year). This changes everything. He took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and yet he has gone around the world promoting Islam, the sharia (Islamic law).”

Even relatively mainstream conservative publications and websites promote the lie that President Obama is a Muslim. From Human Events just last month:

“Growing up as a Muslim, Obama must have learned that according to the Qur’an it is acceptable to lie, deceive and live by a double standard provided in so doing one advances Islamic goals. Muslims only pretend to trust and be friends with non-Muslims; in the deepest of their Muslim hearts they have been taught that all non-Muslims are infidels.”

The so-called “mainstream media” has also fed the confusion and misinformation by absurdly suggesting that the facts about President Obama’s faith are somehow in doubt and a legitimate subject of debate. A Fox News piece about President Obama last year included a graphic with this banner:

“Islam or Isn’t He?”

And there are the right-wing scare sites, like, with headlines like: “Believe Obama is a Muslim; Here’s Why” and posts like “Is Obama a Muslim? … Would he lie about it? … Does he consort with Muslims? … Why are Democrats, progressives lying about it?”

President Obama isn’t the only target of this kind of devious and despicable strategy, of course. Texas State Board of Education members have regularly accused opponents — during debates over science and social studies, for example — of being anti-Christian. Some have even questioned the faith of other board members. This line of attack is a staple of the religious right — and it’s a threat to the religious freedom and tolerance that mainstream Americans have long supported.