On the heels of a new poll suggesting that nearly one in five Americans incorrectly believes that President Obama is a Muslim, one of the nation's most prominent evangelical leaders has weighed in with a seemingly lukewarm endorsement of the president's Christian faith.
The Rev. Franklin Graham waded into the discussion with his own controversial explanation of why people wrongly believe the president is a Muslim. Graham, who prayed with Obama in a session with his father, Billy Graham, earlier this year, was asked whether he has any doubts about Obama's self-avowed Christian faith.Watch 'World News With Diane Sawyer' for more on this story tonight on ABC.
"I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name," Graham told CNN's John King in a televised interview that aired Thursday night.
"Now it's obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed, and he has renounced Islam, and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said," Graham continued, adding that "the Islamic world sees the president as one of theirs."The president himself has written that his father, Barack Obama Sr., was already a confirmed atheist by the time he was born. His father divorced his mother when Obama was 2 years old, and he had little contact with his father during his childhood.
White House spokesman Bill Burton reacted to Graham's comments at a White House briefing today in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., saying simply that the president is a committed Christian and that Franklin Graham is entitled to his opinion.
Confusion about the president's beliefs appears to be growing among the population, according to a new poll from the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The poll found that 18 percent of those surveyed wrongly identified Obama as Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. At the same time, the number of Americans who said they believed, correctly, that Obama is Christian has declined from 48 percent in March 2009 to 34 percent today. But 43 percent of Americans now say they don't know what Obama's religion is at all.
The Pew poll was conducted between July 21 and Aug. 5, before Obama weighed in on the controversial plan to build an Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
The misinformation continues to exist despite the president's own declarations of his Christian faith and the statements of his spiritual advisers.
"The president is, obviously, Christian. He prays every day," Burton said Thursday aboard Air Force One.
"He communicates with his religious adviser every single day," Burton said. "There's a group of pastors that he takes counsel from on a regular basis. His faith is very important to him, but it's not something that's a topic of conversation every single day."
Burton said the president has talked "extensively" about his faith in the past and "you can bet he'll talk about his faith again." But "making sure Americans know what a devout Christian he is" is not the president's top priority.
The poll indicates that groups who have shown the most willingness to believe the wrong notion that the president is a Muslim include conservative Republicans, 34 percent of whom believe Obama is Muslim. Eighteen percent of independents said the president is a Muslim, up from 10 percent in March 2009.
"I think the reality is that false beliefs spread like gossip more than actual information," said Andrew Perrin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Perrin's research has shown that a false perception can spread quickly if people's friends and neighbors also have heard or believe a similar idea.
"False beliefs propagate when people think others believe them, and when they have a supportive source that wants them to hold it," Perrin said.
Perrin has found that even direct denials of the false information do not always solve the problem.
"In my own research, when [people] get reliable information that discounts these beliefs, they tend to cling to those beliefs more," Perrin said.
But even among the president's allies, the numbers are shifting. In March 2009, 55 percent of Democrats said the president is a Christian. That number is now 46 percent.
African-Americans, who voted for Obama overwhelmingly, have shown a similar shift. In March 2009, 36 percent of African-Americans said they didn't know the president's religion. That number is now 46 percent. Self-described liberal Democrats who don't know what religion the president is shifted from 23 percent to 31 percent.
Obama has favored a more private faith since he took office in January 2009, attending formal church services just a handful of times, including Easter of this year.
Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama has said he prefers worshiping at the chapel at Camp David. But the president rarely goes to the presidential retreat, and instead spends Sundays at the White House. Weekend activities often include basketball or golf.
Still, the president has said his Christian faith is part of his daily life. Last year, Obama told ABC's Terry Moran on "Nightline" that he relied on his BlackBerry as one tool to keep the faith.
"My faith and neighborhood initiatives director, Joshua DuBois, he has a devotional that he sends to me on my BlackBerry every day," Obama said. "That's how I start my morning. You know, he's got a passage, scripture, in some cases, quotes from other faiths to reflect on."
The president said during the same interview that his faith had deepened during his time in office.
"[Before taking office], I had a habit of praying every night before I go to bed. I pray all the time now," Obama laughed. "Because I've got a lot of stuff on my plate, and I need guidance all the time."
While the president and his family initially planned to join a church in Washington, they put the search on hold after finding the trappings of the modern presidency too cumbersome for congregation life. Before the president attends a service, the building must be swept for threats and every churchgoer screened for weapons.
An Obama family visit to the 19th Street Baptist Church, a historic African-American congregation in Washington, turned into a circus atmosphere that dismayed the family, according to aides, particularly after learning that longtime church members were turned away from the service.
ABC's Jake Tapper, Devin Dwyer and Ann Compton contributed to this report.