Obama, Christian not Muslim: An Interfaith Perspective


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.

8 Replies to “Obama, Christian not Muslim: An Interfaith Perspective”

  1. I love this Sue. Am very moved and feel a great deal of compassion for the so called non-compliants in the world who just don’t fit the tiny little mold we’ve deemed acceptable. I feel sad too that I confess my own smallness and prejudice for those who are different…wishing I could be much bigger. May we all be. Obama did not change his name. He could have chosen to do that a long time ago knowing what limelight he was headed for…I love that he is solidly standing in his shoes not wavering. May we all stand with him. He needs us to do that. And with our muslim brothers and sisters. Thank you SKM for this great powerful moving blog.

  2. Another great post. Perhaps you might consider calling Obama (and others) a “child of different faith parents” instead of an “intefaith child.” While awkward, it may better convey the important distinction between someone who is the former but has not chosen to identify as the latter. He has neither identified himself as interfaith nor is he a child at this point in his life. This would also seem to fit best with your view that a person born of parents of different faiths has the right to identify themselves as they want. This is analogous to his decision to identify himself as having parents of different races but also as an African-American.

  3. Ian–

    Yes, the terminology is awkward. I like your suggestion, but it does not solve the “child” issue. I sometimes call myself an “interfaith adult” but people don’t often understand what I’m talking about.

    You are also correct in implying that in calling people such as Obama interfaith children, I am claiming some commonality with all “adults who were born to parents of two different faiths,” even while fiercely supporting their right to self-identify and self-label. Is this hypocritical? Inconsistent?

    While Obama clearly chose to identify as an African-American, I wonder if he would deny sharing formative experiences with other biracial people. He writes eloquently in his first book about these experiences. And he has gone on the record (though only briefly, as it is politically dangerous to do so) about what he gained from being raised with exposure to Islam.

  4. I also enjoyed this note on Obama. If you commit yourself openly, as you point out, to one specific
    branch of your faith, you upset all the others, but if
    you seem not to commit to any you may appear not religious. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  5. I’m just so glad you wrote this. I am so exhausted by the black and white, fear-based, non-critical thinking that seems an epidemic in our country today. You provide a clear picture of how nuanced faith really is, and how important it is to strive for compassion and understanding rather than judgment. Thank you!

  6. Sue, the point you make about choosing your identity is critical. A false identity is being foisted upon Pres. Obama by zealots hoping to make political gain and to sow distrust among rational Americans. I’m not sure which is worse: the phony attribution of Islam to the President, or now, Glen Beck’s assertion that the President’s “kind” of Christianity is radical and dangerous. Both undermine civil society and breed fear at a time when what we need is to embrace diversity and practice tolerance.

  7. I feel moved to point out that any President’s choice of religion should *not* be a factor in voter’s decision-making, nor do I believe it should be publicized. I recognize that this is a somewhat naive standpoint, given the prevalent role that religion plays in many peoples’ lives, but I stand firmly behind the separation of church and state. To judge a leader on his ethics, values, actions, and words is valid critique; to judge him by his religious background and adherence is groundless. President Obama’s situation begs for tolerance but is met only with adversity: a disappointing and potentially harmful approach.

  8. Cay–I certainly agree with you that voters should not be judging candidates based on religion. In Obama’s case, because of his complex family tree and international upbringing, he was forced to explain his religious journey and choice in order to avoid being misinterpreted (as a Muslim). Of course, that is happening anyway. Also, he wrote about his upbringing and his Christianity in his autobiography, before ever running for President, so his choice was in the public record.

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