A simple question that deserves a simple answer

A SIMPLE QUESTION THAT DESERVES A SIMPLE ANSWER…. Way back in March 2008, Hillary Clinton was asked on “60 Minutes” about right-wing rumors that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim. Steve Kroft said, “You said you’d take Senator Obama at his word that he’s not a Muslim. You don’t believe that he’s…” to which Clinton replied, “No. No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know.”

In context, there was nothing particularly problematic about the response, but the qualifier — “as far as I know” — generated some controversy.

More than two years later, as a consequence of our often-ridiculous public discourse, the subject continues to generate discussion and confusion. On “Meet the Press” yesterday, David Gregory asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about the large chunk of the country that believes the nonsense about the president’s faith. McConnell initially tried to stick to his talking points, saying, “The president’s faith in the government to stimulate the economy is what people are questioning.”

Gregory kept at it, before McConnell twice said, “I take the president at his word.”

Jon Chait hears a dog-whistle.

To say that you “take him at his word” means two things. First of all, it suggests that the president’s word is the only information we have to go on here. Of course, that is absurd. Second, if further suggests that, the evidence being weak or inconclusive, McConnell is taking the high road by accepting Obama’s testimony.

The formulation is a way of putatively siding with the truth so that he can’t be pilloried by the media, while subtly suggesting that he is open to the views of Americans who think Obama is Muslim. And, of course, if reporters recognize the sneaky little game he’s playing and demand a stronger formulation, all the better! It gets more chatter about Obama and possibly being a Muslim into the news.

McConnell used the formulation twice. It’s not an accident.

In fairness, McConnell, after pointing to what the president has said about his own faith, added, “I don’t think that’s in dispute.” That’s closer to what the official party line should be, but it’s still short.

The correct answer is to dismiss nonsense because it’s nonsense. President Obama is a Christian. He’s professed his Christian faith. He and his family were members of a Christian church. He’s offered public testimony about his faith, and started a prayer circle in the White House with Christian pastors. Muslims don’t do any of these things.

The Americans who perceive the president as a secret Muslim are wrong. McConnell should have the courage to say so.