President Obama is a Christian. His wife is a Christian. They’ve baptized their children as Christians. The Obama family were members of a Christian church in their hometown of Chicago. At his inauguration, Obama was sworn in on a Christian Bible, and as president, he’s proceeded to speak many times with pride about his Christianity.
And yet, Byron York asked over the weekend, “Why are Americans confused about Obama’s religion?”
[W]hen it comes to confusion, or wrong information, about Obama’s religion, Scott Walker is far from alone. Polls have long shown many Americans know little about the president’s faith.
That’s true. As best as I can tell, since the dawn of modern polling, no modern president has had his faith questioned the way President Obama has, and as such, there are no polling points of comparison. That said, there’s considerable, independent data suggesting a chunk of the population is unsure about Obama’s faith.
If the president’s far-right detractors hoped to persuade Americans to be skeptical about the president’s personal religious beliefs, it would appear those critics have had some success. One can speculate about why Obama, and none of his modern predecessors, has been subjected to such attacks, but whatever the reason, they’ve had some effect on public attitudes.
York, meanwhile, suggests the president himself bears some responsibility: “For one thing, few people see Obama openly practicing any religious faith. After the president did not attend church on Christmas 2013, the New York Times, citing unofficial White House historian Mark Knoller, noted that Obama had attended church 18 times in nearly five years in the White House, while George W. Bush attended 120 times in eight years.”
I assume those statistics are accurate, though I’m not sure how helpful they are in understanding the broader dynamic.
For a while, this was of great interest to Politico, which published piece after piece after piece about Obama’s church attendance. In time, the Beltway media seemed to tire of the story, though the Washington Examiner may stoke the fires a bit.
Which would be a shame.
Let’s note right off the bat that it’s unlikely that the president’s church attendance would really make any difference. For whatever reason, some of Obama’s more unhinged opponents have decided he wasn’t born in America, he doesn’t believe in capitalism, and he’s not really a Christian. It’s speculative, of course, but I think it’s fair to say Obama could go to church services literally every day, create a desk for an official minister to stay in the Oval Office full time, and put an “I Heart Jesus” bumper-sticker on the presidential limo, and some corners of the right would still insist it’s an elaborate ruse, hatched by a Kenyan socialist Muslim communist gay atheist Nazi to pull the wool over Americans’ eyes.
Putting the burden for die-hard nonsense on Obama, in other words, is probably pretty silly.
As for Obama’s infrequent church attendance contributing to confusion, it’s worth noting that Reagan didn’t join a congregation during his two terms, and the Republican icon rarely attended services. In fact, Fred Barnes, of all people, asked Reagan to explain himself on the matter in a 1984 debate.
“The answer to your question is very simple about why I don’t go to church. I have gone to church regularly all my life, and I started to here in Washington. And now, in the position I hold and in the world in which we live, where Embassies do get blown up in Beirut … but I pose a threat to several hundred people if I go to church.“I know the threats that are made against me. We all know the possibility of terrorism. We have seen the barricades that have had to be built around the White House. And, therefore, I don’t feel – and my minister knows this and supports me in this position – I don’t feel that I have a right to go to church, knowing that my being there could cause something of the kind that we have seen in other places, in Beirut, for example. And I miss going to church, but I think the Lord understands.”
I’ve seen no evidence that Reagan’s infrequent church attendance led to an organized attack on the sincerity of his faith. To understand what it is about Obama that causes the attacks, I’m afraid we’ll have to look elsewhere.