President Barack Obama can’t seem to shake it, can he? After serving as President of the United States for seven years, it appears that a large portion of Republicans (43 percent!) still believe he is of the Muslim faith. The CNN/ORC poll released Sunday also exposed misconceptions about Obama’s place of birth, as well. Polling showed that 20 percent of adults questioned still believe he was born in a different country, 9 percent of whom believe there is “solid evidence.”
Ever since Obama’s 2004 campaign for Senate, he’s been accused of following the Islamic faith in hopes to ruin his reputation among American voters. All the way back in 2006, a chain email from “250 Iowa Women” accused Obama of concealing his true religion. “Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim,” the email said. “He is quick to point out that, ‘He was once a Muslim, but that he also attended Catholic school.’” Of course, that rumor was thoroughly debunked by Snopes. Politifact has gone through exhaustive measures to prove again and again that the president is, in fact, Christian.
After serving as President of the United States for seven years, it appears that a large portion of Republicans (43 percent!) still believe he is of the Muslim faith.
But why does it matter? Were Obama to actually be a Muslim, he would still be eligible for the presidency. By both ardently accusing and denying Obama’s Muslim faith—no matter how untrue the accusation may be—Americans are complicit in the persistence of racism and Islamophobia in the country.
On Sept. 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy, the then-Democratic nominee for president, gave a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association regarding his Catholic faith. After addressing “the spread of Communism” in the opening of the speech, Kennedy said, “[B]ecause I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured.” He expressed his devotion to an America “where the separation of church and state is absolute” and declared: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
At that time, whether or not a Catholic could be president was a major topic of debate, as critics of Kennedy questioned whether or not he would show allegiance to the Constitution or the Pope—most notably questioned by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a prominent Protestant minister and close associate of Richard Nixon’s. But Kennedy’s appearance also helped him appeal to 1960 voters. Slate’s David Greenberg quotes Pulitzer prize-winning writer David Halberstam in a 2007 op-ed:
Kennedy looked “stylish and fresh and clean, his tailoring and his coiffing reeked of elegance and tradition, the first Irish Brahmin [a member of Boston’s upper class], the Irishman was Wasp.” Hard-core haters would never back him, but to mildly intolerant Americans, “the sight of the young, slim, modern, attractive Kennedy, free as he seemed to be of restraints and prejudices of the past, erased their suspicions.”
The scrutiny of Kennedy’s non-Protestant religion is similar to the accusations Obama receives about his fictional Muslim faith, as the religion itself would signify some kind of ideological threat to the fabric of the country, but this ability to “pass” in hegemonic culture is the crucial difference. Like the Irish and Italians before them, white Catholics were eventually accepted into the American mainstream. Obama, however, is still marked by his dark skin and Muslim middle name.
When it comes to Obama’s ability to lead effectively, this shouldn’t be an issue. It certainly isn’t in the Constitution. Section 1 of Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution states three rules: 1) The president must be a natural born U.S. citizen, 2) they should be at least 35 years-old, and 3) have been a U.S. resident for 14 years. Nowhere does it list a race, gender, or religious requirements to hold office.
Nonetheless, the “America is a Christian nation” is a theme that continues to be brought up in elections, as candidates profess their unbreakable devotion to Jesus as the son of God in an effort to appeal to potential supporters. There’s a reason for that: Although 58 percent of Americans say they would vote for a candidate of no faith, that leaves a whopping 42 percent that would not.
Like the Irish and Italians before them, white Catholics were eventually accepted into the American mainstream. Obama, however, is still marked by his dark skin and Muslim middle name.
But that unofficial requirement of candidates is, in and of itself, unconstitutional—and an affront to our nation’s history. CNN’s Mark Edwards reminds us, “The United States became the first nation in history to abolish religious disqualifications from officeholding and civic engagement. The founders purposely created a nation that based its legitimacy on popular will, not on some higher power.”
When the likes of Mike Huckabee or, say, Kim Davis espouse rhetoric of restoring Christian values in America—while invoking the Constitution—they are blatantly ignoring the foundational protection of religious freedom. And even though America’s founders could not have foreseen a time when an African-American would have the freedom to hold office—after all, they were mostly slave owners—and definitely weren’t imagining a non-Christian running the country, the very laws they passed allowed for such a reality.
Anti-Muslim critics fear that the Constitution would be usurped by Sharia law, a series of Islamic regulations that cover aspects of everyday life, if a Muslim were to take office. Yet many American Muslims already hold elected offices throughout the country. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison was elected to the House in 2006, after serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2002. Of course, Ellison’s 2006 use of the Quran for his oath was met with criticism from Virginia representative Virgil Goode, who said there will “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran” in an open letter.
There are currently only two Muslims in Congress, but many more are beginning to run for local elections. To date, no Sharia law has been established. And if one of those Muslim politicians were to run for president, a Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans would be willing to vote for him—even while others continue to let old prejudices stand in the way of progress.
So 43 percent of American think Barack Obama is a Muslim? Good. Now all those people need to do is stop caring so much about it.
Feliks Garcia is a writer in Brooklyn. He holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.
Illustration by Max Fleishman