Three and a half years into President Obama’s first term as president, half of Americans cannot accurately say what religion he is, according to a poll released this week.
Only 49 percent of respondents said that Obama was Christian while 17 percent inaccurately said he was Muslim. Nearly one-third of respondents said they did not know the president’s religion, according to the poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
More people – 60 percent – knew that Romney, who has not held elected office in a decade, was Mormon than knew which religion the sitting president subscribes to.
And while only 9 percent of respondents said Romney was a religion that he is not, more than twice that amount said Obama adheres to a religion other than Christianity. The vast majority of those claiming Obama is not a Christian said he was a Muslim.
Nearly one in three Republicans said Obama was Muslim, twice as many as in 2008, the Pew study shows.
“Unfortunately there has been a development of a bizarre echo chamber within right wing of the political spectrum that truth and reality have failed to penetrate,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director at Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. “It’s a self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing delusion.”
But this seemingly large lack of basic knowledge about the president may have more to do with people’s opinion of Obama than how much they know about religious beliefs, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
“It’s entirely possible that what people are telling us isn’t exactly what they know but they are expressing an opinion,” Cooperman said. “We suspect — it’s hard to prove it– that some of the people who tell us that the president is a Muslim are using the question as a way to express their distrust or dislike for the president.”
Only 8 percent of Democrats said Obama was Muslim. Because there is such a wide divide between the parties’ responses, Cooperman said the results do not “just show whether people are ignorant on the president’s religion but more that they have an opinion on his religion.”
The percentage of people who said Obama was Muslim has stayed fairly steady since August 2010, when firestorm erupted over plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.
Hooper said that while the tension between Muslims and Christians has not been as public since the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, he has seen “a steady erosion of tolerance and mutual understanding based on this relentless campaign of Islamophobia” since Obama was elected.
“It is visceral hatred for President Obama and to justify it they have to come up with these reasons: he is the other, he’s Muslim, he’s foreign born.”
But as of now, a candidate’s religion will not likely be the driving factor for whether people pick Obama or Romney in November.
Even though 65 percent of those who think Obama is Muslim said they were uncomfortable with his religion, most of them also said they already planned to vote for Romney. And among voters who knew Romney was Mormon, 80 percent either said his faith did not make them uncomfortable or that it did not matter.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter at all,” Cooperman said, but it “doesn’t seem to have a lot of impact on their voting preference.”