Debate over president's faith is distracting
President Obama's 10-day Asia trip includes visits to India and Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.
The president chose not to visit the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar during his time in India because it required a head covering that his advisers feared would fuel speculation about his faith. A Pew study showed that nearly 20% of Americans believe falsely that the president is a Muslim.
The more Obama reaches out to Muslims, the more his critics are likely to slander him, implying that he is not a Christian.
An example is his April 2009 speech in Turkey, in which he said, "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation, we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." The president's critics have seized on that statement, insisting that he rejects the Christian foundations of America.
Is Obama stuck between a rock and a hard place? If you were the president, how would you handle this dilemma?
Not only do one in five Americans now believe falsely that the president is a Muslim, but according to a recent Newsweek poll, over half of Republicans believe that Obama likely "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world." No wonder the president is paranoid about his calendar.
But we must remember that Americans have always been a people of deep faith, and we've always expected our presidents to be deeply religious. Or at least pretend they are.
Our earliest presidents spoke openly about their faith--often Christian, but sometimes deistic. Abraham Lincoln's public pronouncements were laced with religious imagery. In his Second Inaugural Address, for example, he quoted the Bible--"the judgments of the Lord are just and true"--and then stooped to kiss the Bible on which his hand rested. Other presidents in the modern era from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter have also worked to assure citizens that they were men of faith.
As Stanley Hauerwas recently wrote in The Guardian, "It seems to be a requirement of political office in America that you believe in God."
During the last two years, however, we've seen that some Americans don't just want a religious president; they want a Christian president. Such sentiments are especially prominent among those on the right and have produced nearly obsessive speculation over the truth of President Obama's faith claims.
But our nation has grown more pluralistic than the days of Lincoln or even Carter, and we're facing some serious problems that require our full attention. War rages in the Middle East, people who want to work still can't find jobs, and American education is largely determined by one's income level or zip code. Like children gossiping in the back of class rather than engaging in the day's lesson, too many have allowed conjecture over the President's faith to distract us from pressing issues.
Whatever the president decides to do about his visit to Amristar, let's get back to work on things that matter.
November 8, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
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