A growing number of Americans, currently 18%, believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim. I have been mulling over the interfaith perspectives on this disturbing new statistic from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Here are some of my thoughts:
1. Obama is, in fact, a Christian/Muslim interfaith child, both by birth and through childhood experience. I identify with him because I see all of the positive interfaith traits in him: peace-making, bridge-building, the ability to see all sides of an issue. But interfaith children have the right to choose their own labels, as I point out in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Obama has chosen Christianity, and went through the appropriate rituals to officially join a Christian denomination. That makes him a Christian, period.
2. Barack Hussein Obama is stuck with a name that sounds Muslim. Interfaith children with Jewish last names who are raised as Christians, or choose Christianity, will empathize with the President in his predicament, as will many other interfaith children who live with the cognitive dissonance of an ethnic last name that differs from their religious label. No matter what our religious beliefs or practices or choices, a segment of society will continue to judge us by our names, our noses, our hair, our skin color, accent or parentage. This is deeply frustrating.
3. Interfaith children (and converts) have to try harder. We have to perform more rituals, loudly proclaim our religious institutional affiliations, show up for formal worship, be holier and more kosher than thou, in order to convince others of our religious authenticity. This is of course unfair, and supremely annoying. Obama, burned by his enthusiasm for the “wrong” church in Chicago, tried to protect himself (and guard his family’s privacy) by not affiliating with a church in Washington. Now this strategy is backfiring.
4. Many folks, nostalgic for the (mythological) monochromatic simplicity of a white Christian America, still cannot accept Obama, despite electing him. We are tribal, and personal religious evolution or family complexity is too subtle for many folks. Or they may understand Obama’s religion perfectly well, but simply choose to pretend to misunderstand him for political reasons.
5. Confusion is in the eye of the beholder. Often, it is not the interfaith children who are confused. Obama is not confused: he knows that he has chosen Christianity. Society is flummoxed by his complex background, appearance, behavior. The survey “shows a general uncertainty and confusion about the president’s religion,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are binary beings; we have trouble “getting” complexity.
5. How sad that being Muslim in America is still so frightening. I spent last week, the first week of Ramadan, in a cabin in the mountains in West Virginia, close to the stars and the elegant new moon, imagining my Muslim friends around the world in happy iftar (break-fast) celebrations. I was off-line for that week, and blissfully unaware of the Pew poll at first, not to mention the increasing tension over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York. Coming back to the media, to politics, to the on-line world, was hard.