President Barack Obama has declared himself a Christian. He has worshiped in Christian churches, prayed with Christian ministers and recounted how he knelt beneath a cross and felt God's spirit.
And yet, a surprising number of Americans keep telling pollsters they believe he's a Muslim.
The Pew Research Center last week reported that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. A Time magazine poll also released last week found even more people — 24 percent — said he was a Muslim.
Dig deeply into the polls, however, and you see the roots of misunderstanding and some revealing patterns. Americans with the strongest dislike of the Democratic president and his policies are much more likely to say Obama is a Muslim. Pollsters say people's beliefs about his religion may actually be an effort to equate him with a faith they dislike.
Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has found that when people are fiercely partisan, they are less likely to change their minds when presented with factually correct evidence that contradicts their views.
Calling Obama a Muslim has "become a stand-in for 'I don't know who he really is,' " Nyhan said. "Part of it may just be people being down on Obama and attaching themselves to any label that is perceived as negative."
PolitiFact has done extensive fact-checking on Obama's faith and has debunked false claims in chain e-mails that he attended a radical Islamic school, that his political rise mirrored a biblical tale about the Antichrist and that he took the oath for U.S. Senate on a Koran. All three earned our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.
Our fact-checking also showed clear evidence that Obama is a Christian. According to the president's memoirs and independent biographies, Obama was not raised in any particular faith. He became a Christian when he was in his 20s while working as a community organizer in Chicago. Obama said the churches there impressed him with their commitment to social justice and the hope they gave to the poor.
"It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith," Obama said in a 2006 speech. "It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."
The pastor of Trinity then was Jeremiah Wright, the minister from whom Obama distanced himself in the 2008 presidential campaign after video of some of Wright's more controversial sermons were aired on television and the Internet. The break between the two men was over Wright's comments about American foreign policy and race relations, not tenets of Christian doctrine.
Several independent reports have documented Obama's church membership and faith life. "Along his Senate campaign trail (in 2004), Obama would never fail to carry his Christian Bible. He would place it right beside him, in the small compartment in the passenger side door of the SUV, so he could refer to it often," reported journalist David Mendell in his 2007 biography Obama: From Promise to Power.
After the falling out with Wright, Obama said he intended to find a new church once the campaign was over. In office, though, Obama has not attended one church regularly. Instead, he has worshiped at various churches in the Washington, D.C., area, including the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the 19th Street Baptist Church and St. John's Episcopal Church. He also has attended services at Camp David, the presidential retreat.
Obama regularly seeks spiritual guidance from a group of pastors and called them recently from Air Force One for a prayer session, according to an account in the Washington Post. Last week, when the Pew poll was released, presidential aides said Obama remains a practicing Christian and prays daily.
So why do so many people keep saying he's Muslim?
A benign explanation is that there is genuine confusion about his religion because Obama has Muslim ancestors on his father's side and a traditionally Muslim middle name, Hussein.
The evangelical pastor Franklin Graham mentioned that as a reason on Aug. 19 on CNN: "He was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim; the seed of Muslim 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 added that he did consider Obama to be a Christian today: "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 the president is what he has said."
According to family accounts, Obama's paternal grandfather, Onyango Obama, was Muslim. But it's not clear that his biological father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., ever practiced the religion. By all accounts, Obama's father was an atheist more interested in economics and government than religion. And the senior Obama had little influence on the future president; he abandoned his American wife, Ann Dunham, shortly after Obama's birth in 1961.
Dunham married again, to Lolo Soetero, an Indonesian man who was Muslim. The family moved to Indonesia when Obama was 6 years old, where he attended a Muslim public school and a Catholic school at different times. Soetero was not particularly devout, according to his daughter and Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetero-Ng. She told biographer David Remnick that Soetero "never went to prayer services except for big communal events."
Obama described his upbringing this way: "My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I."
Evidence doesn't sway his opponents
Whether or not there's legitimate confusion about Obama's ancestry, there's evidence that people are more likely to say they think Obama is a Muslim if they don't like his performance in office. In the Pew poll, the groups most likely to disagree with Obama politically were more likely to say he was a Muslim. Among those who disapproved of Obama's performance, the number who said he was a Muslim was 30 percent. Among Republicans, it was 31 percent. And among self-described conservative Republicans, the number was 34 percent, the highest of all demographic groups.
The pollsters at Time asked respondents if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of various religious groups, including Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Mormon. Respondents gave the Muslim religion the most negative ratings, with 43 percent saying they had a somewhat or very unfavorable view.
The pollsters at Pew Research Center see both politics and religion at work, said John C. Green, a senior researcher at Pew. There's certainly a correlation between people who think he is a Muslim and people who rate him poorly for job performance. But there's also been a marked increase in the number of people who say they don't know what Obama's religion is. That number increased from 32 percent at the time of the election to 43 percent now.
That may be because the economy has been the main topic for political discussion this year, not religious matters, Green said. "Typically, the longer a president is in office, the more accurate the views of him become," Green said. "But there has been a lot less discussion of religion in the past year, and the president has talked less about religion. The economy has been the main topic."
Nyhan, the political scientist who has studied the phenomenon, has conducted several research experiments looking at how people respond to facts in political arguments. In 2008, he directed an experiment that asked participants their political views and what they thought Obama's religion was, then showed video of Obama discussing his Christianity, then asked the question again.
The evidence didn't always sway those who held the inaccurate view, though. In fact, in some cases it had the odd effect of making people even more likely to then believe Obama was a Muslim. Nyhan has found a similar effect in other experiments: It tends to happen most often when people have strong political opinions and are presented with evidence that contradicts that opinion. In other words, if people have strong views in the first place, they don't like to change their minds, even when confronted with evidence.
"If people don't want to accept the evidence, it's more likely to provoke rather than correct," Nyhan said. "It's really very hard to correct these things."