President Barack Obama has declared himself a Christian. He has worshipped 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 — 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.”