By Gustav Niebuhr
Wasn’t it only a month ago that the Pew Research Center announced its finding that nearly one in every five Americans believed President Obama to be a Muslim? The poll’s publication arrived just in time for the sound and fury over plans to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero, and just as news cameras began raptly focusing on an obscure Florida minister who said he would burn copies of the Qur’an on 9/11.
So maybe it came as a relief to Obama to field a public question this week that allowed him to state, flat-out, that he is a Christian. (How many times has he had to do this?) Why are you a Christian, a woman asked? Note, please, her interrogative construction: “Why are you?” not “Are you?”
Obama’s questioner appeared to belong to a larger group of people in that Pew poll, a group that got precious little attention. Those were the people who had figured out that a man who wrote about his religious conversion in a 15-year-old autobiography (Dreams of My Father), who spent two decades in a Chicago church and who had a public fight with his minister during his presidential campaign–well, based on the evidence, those people must have concluded that that man was probably not a Muslim.
But there is, as always, a larger point here.
Somewhere in our Constitution–let’s try Article VI–it states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” We love to invoke the wisdom of the nation’s Founders on all sorts of occasions. But somehow, in the public mind, their brilliance in composing that particular phrase gets forgotten, along with the words themselves.
And so this particular president–a “Christian by choice,” as he described his adult conversion to the woman in that Albuquerque backyard–finds himself in the position of never explaining his religious faith quite enough to suit everyone.
Dear Readers, what’s the president to do?