Not a Real Christian!

A pair of Gallup surveys measuring public awareness of the religious affiliations of the two major-party presidential candidates produces a rather startling result. Only 33% of Americans say they are not aware of Mitt Romney’s religion, and of the 67% saying they do, 57% correctly identify him as “Mormon” or LDS.” Keep in mind that Romney’s almost never refers publicly to his faith.

Meanwhile, fully 44% of Americans say they don’t know the president’s religion. Of the 56% that do, only 34% correctly identify Obama as a “Christian” or “Protestant,” while 11% say he’s Muslim and another 8% that he has no religion at all. Among self-identified Republicans, the percentage who says they’re not certain rises to 47%, with less than a fourth identifying Obama as a “Christian” or “Protestant,” not that much more than the 18% who say he’s Muslim.

Obama’s now been president more than three years, and has regularly participated in prayer breakfasts and other religious events, and made a several high profile speeches on the issue of faith and politics or government. He invariably identifies himself as Christian. The more you stare at the numbers, the more it becomes obvious that many, perhaps most of those who say they “don’t know” Obama’s religious affiliation are in fact simply denying it. Of those, quite a few buy into the crypto-Muslim myth, but I suspect even more subscribe to a definition of Christianity from which the president–and perhaps other “liberals”–are excluded.

This is a problem not just for Obama, but for American Christianity. I remain stunned that Rick Santorum’s casual dismissal (on more than one occasion) of mainline Protestants as following a “phony theology” or even having gone over to the side of Satan in the spiritual warfare for America did not make him a pariah during the presidential nominating contest. Indeed, his favorability/unfavorability ratios among Republicans were as strong as Romney’s even after he had been defeated and dropped out of the race.

Some may disagree, and feel that conservative Obama-hatred, based on party, ideology, race or “otherness” is a thing in itself and taints all of the president’s associations. But we may eventually figure out it’s more complicated than that, and that future presidential candidates who aren’t identified with conservative brands of Christianity are assumed to have no religion or some other religion. As I’ve long argued, there is a strong trend in popular culture that reinforces this tendency by conceding to conservative evangelicals the very term “Christian.” It won’t necessarily go away when Obama leaves office.

UPDATE: case in point: National Review is featuring an article celebrating the vast ecumenical movement supporting the “religious freedom” objection to the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate, as evidenced by an event in Mobile. The two mainline Protestants mentioned have actually left their denominations to become Catholics–you know, real Christians.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.