Political Animal


June 25, 2012 5:44 PM Not a Real Christian!

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • BJH on June 25, 2012 5:58 PM:

    I think it's a bit simpler than that: a lot of Republicans simply don't answer honestly when they're polled about such things. They know perfectly well that President Obama is a Christian, but in their minds Christian = good, and they don't want to say anything good about Obama. So they say they think he's a Muslim or that they just don't know. It's the same thing when they're asked whether they think he was born in the US. They'll pick a bad-sounding option, even if they really know it's not true. If pollsters put "space alien" or "Satan worshiper" on the list, a significant number of Republicans would say "Sure, that's what he is. Damn right."

  • Al on June 25, 2012 6:13 PM:

    Of course BHO is a muslim. Why else would he be pushing a marxist sharia agenda onto America?

  • SadOldVet on June 25, 2012 6:16 PM:

    The really interesting time comes when the Christians get the power to impose a national religion! War between the Baptists and the Catholics.

  • Peter C on June 25, 2012 6:18 PM:

    This shows the great wisdom of our founding fathers in creating a 'wall of separation' between religion and government. Religion is a realm where belief is paramount and takes precedence over evidence. Government works best when it is grounded in reality and when it uses evidence to adjust policy to achieve the mutually agreed goals of disparate groups. It is dangerous to use religious identity as a proxy for policy positions; it exposes citizens to the all-too-frequent hucksterism of glib-but-conscienceless salemen masquerading as spiritual leaders.

  • mellowjohn on June 25, 2012 6:27 PM:

    unfortunately, "i really don't give a shit" wasn't an option.

  • Mitch on June 25, 2012 6:38 PM:


    The only answer for theocrats remains the same as ever:

    "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius." -Arnaud Amalric (reportedly)

    He may or may not have actually said it, but zealots throughout history have shown that this is the preferred method of settling religious disputes.

    Captcha: heresy xtreamo. That's fitting somehow.

  • Purplehawk on June 25, 2012 7:00 PM:

    Ed, my brother made an interracial marriage back in the 70's. The young woman pleaded with her mother to attend their wedding, pointing out that we were a religious family and the pastor was a family member. I took a hand in trying to alleviate the breach. The family church was American Baptist; her family were Southern Baptists. Her mother rejected everything I offered, insisting that we weren't "real" Christians. How could we not be, I asked. Because it's just that "nigger religion," she said.

    I mention this because some of those responses may well be related to that same, tired old bias, and the pollsters aren't getting to the root of the responses.

  • TCinLA on June 25, 2012 7:03 PM:

    Letting the fundamentalists hijack the word "Christian" is as bad as letting the fascists hijack the word "Conservative." Fundamentalists are not Christians and fascists are not Conservatives.

    As a friend who lived through the Hitler Years in Germany told me, "Hitler wasn't elected by the Nazis, he was elected by the conservatives who believed him when he told them he was one of them, which they learned too late was not the case."

    As Upton Sinclair said 80 years ago: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross."

  • someotherdude on June 25, 2012 7:50 PM:

    I research, Protestants of color for a living. I consciously use the term “Protestant,” instead of “Christian” and/or “Evangelical” because those labels hide more than they reveal, and are tied to political trends, and not church trends.

    I identify the Protestant of color by denomination (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Apostolic…even non-denominational) and then the “liberal” or “conservative” traditions within the denomination. This is important, because Protestants of color have radically different views of political priorities than white/Anglo-Protestants. At the same time, identifying the varying traditions also reveals the cracks in ecumenical white conservative Protestantism, which was a reaction to the dominance of liberal Protestantism, which is inherently ecumenical, and which dominated American life for most of its existence.

    Right-Wing activists have depended on the loose ways “Christian” and “Evangelical” have been applied to US American traditions. Conservative Protestantism is inherently schismatic and anti-Catholic, which is hard to make a political force, unless you pretend that US Protestant history has always been uniform and pro-Catholic.

  • PTate in MN on June 25, 2012 8:40 PM:

    So, roughly 38% of Americans are aware that Mitt Romney is a Mormon. The pollster didn't ask the next question, "Is Mormonism a Christian religion or a heretical sect."

    And while you say that 44% of Americans say they don't know the President's religion, it looks to me as though it would be more correct to say that roughly 19% of Americans can correctly identify President Obama as a Protestant Christian, and 81% don't know his religion.

    Sad. What a bunch of morons inhabit this rapidly imploding nation.

  • citizen_pain on June 25, 2012 8:41 PM:

    Article VI

    "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

    That pretty much settles it. This argument is mute.

  • someotherdude on June 25, 2012 8:44 PM:

    And one more thing. The right has been successful at labeling anything that emanates from organized religion as “religion.” So when the Roman Catholic Church does or says, something, it is now “religious” instead of representative of organized religion. The State/government, is supposed to protect religious folks from the “tyranny” of organized religion.

    When they claim the Obama Administration and/or Democrats are anti-religion, it would behoove liberal activists to claim they are anti-organized religion. Since most of the Obama Admin. is already religious, it is that, they just do not privilege organized religion over the religious.
    Most people are religious, however they are not pro-bureaucratic/organized religious

  • bluestatedon on June 25, 2012 9:25 PM:

    "That pretty much settles it. This argument is mute."

    We'd all be better off if the argument was mute, as well as moot.

  • JoyfulA on June 25, 2012 9:49 PM:

    You have to give a lot more credit to mainstream media for the depiction of "Christians" as Jerry Falwell and his ilk instead of, say, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, mainstream) bishop.

    For decades, all the TV shows present Jim Bakker as the foremost U.S. Christian and ignore what any Presbyterian official has to say. The National Council of Churches has disappeared from the TV bookers' Rolodexes.

    How many reporters reported on what the United Methodist leadership told President Bush, supposedly a devout, born-again Methodist, about his plans for war in Iraq? (They said NO! which you wouldn't know if you didn't follow religious news services.)

    You may disparage mainline Protestant churches for not somehow pushing themselves into the news, despite media's lack of interest, but my United Church of Christ tried to buy ad time on the networks for its "We welcome everybody" commercials, and NBC, CBS, and ABC rejected our cash. We're "divisive."

  • jcricket on June 25, 2012 9:52 PM:

    bluestatedon, the tendency for many to conflate those two words has always been a pet peeve of mine, too.

    Back on track, as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that those who loudly proclaim their Christianity with fists raised in the air against 'the others' have no idea what Jesus taught. Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 13:23-27 come to mind.

    And don't get me started about praying in public. Sigh.

  • Patango on June 25, 2012 10:07 PM:

    It really is not complicated Ed , it is not religious, it is political , a white dem christian might not fair much better either

    Every flaming conservative bigot I know proclaims obama is a foreigner , they know better , but the more things they can hate him for , the better , being against his actual policies does not cut it enough , these people have always been bigots , more or less , but they increased their broadcasting 10 fold after obama was elected , and it is towards all dems now , not just black people , it is disturbing to witness

  • HLang on June 25, 2012 10:29 PM:

    A coupla observations here.

    First, when we see that after three plus years of Obama publicly saying he is a Christian, talking about his Christian faith, and even having it in print, a large number do not believe he is Christian. So, we are supposed to blame Obama that a large number of people who will benefit from ACA still don't know that they will benefit, even though Obama has said it in public, several times? Even though he has made clear (yes, he f*cking has, and don't say he has not unless you can prove it) what the ACA is, what it will do, and WHY it won't work without a mandate? Even though some, occasionally, responsible media organizations have reported what the ACA is, what it does and why it needs a mandate?

    Second, about Rick Santorum's "phony religion". I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, was a serious Catholic in my teens. I'm in my mid 40's. I left the Catholic Church sometime around the third week of college. But here's the funny thing. I always felt, until a few years ago, really, that most mainline Protestants were practicing a fake religion. Don't get me wrong-I did not_think_that, and I did not_believe_ that, but I _felt_ it. When I was a kid and I went to a non-Catholic church for a wedding or funeral or the annual ecumenical Thanksgiving service in my town, I always had the feeling that the whole thing was not quite "real". It's weird, I know. But I think a lot of Catholics _feel_ this way. We are sorta, kinda taught that, and al the bloody Jesuses and the stained glass and the saints and the rosaries and the celibate (yeah, I know) priests and the vaulted ceilings-all that is real. But the Jesus-less crosses, the old white painted churches, the bright interiors, the married women ministers- it is just pretend. It took me two decades after I stopped being religious, let alone Catholic, before I could think differently about that. It is a bizarre Catholic thing. And my mom, and people like Victoria Kennedy and EJ Dionne and Andrew Sullivan all harbor well-deserved anger at the Church for what they have done and what they say weekly about the people they love, but they can not bring themselves to leave their "real" religion and join another more welcoming church where the money they put in the collection basket does not go to the legal defense of pedophiles.

    I recently joined a mainline Protestant church-the one with the old white building, the married women priests and the bright interiors, so I am obviously over my "fake religion" feeling, but amongst Catholics, the feeling is real, and it is almost unshakable.

    Of course, Santorum and most contemporary catholics, especially of the Republican variety, give Evangelicals a pass on the "fake religion" thing, which kind of burns my a** when I remember that it was the grandparents of those evangelicals who used to burn crosses on my grandparent's lawn because they were Catholic. But I digress.

    And then there is this, which I imagine will piss a few folks off. I am guilty here too. But part of the reason that Conservatives own Christianity and religion in general and the flag and patriotism and parades and love of country and whatnot is because we gave it to them.

    Conservatives spent some years in the wilderness-despite Reagan who, as so many have pointed out, could not win a Republican primary today. And during that time in the wilderness, they invested in all kinds of religious institutions, while liberals divested, and put all of our faith in the ability of the government to solve problems, and in our ownership of public institutions and higher education and labor unions. Well, they are now coming out of their churches and are about to complete their coup. And we have no institutional support on which to fall back, in which to retreat, survive, and re-energize.

    Rick Santorum declared war on mainline Protestant churches, universities and labor unions. Liberals need to prepare ourselves

  • Jesus Painted White on June 26, 2012 1:59 AM:

    And the Republican said, Come unto me and thou shalt be saved unto eternal life, thou of white skin and money. All others are blinded to the Truth of Gawd and shall live in conservative damnation until the end of days.

  • bluestatedon on June 26, 2012 9:14 AM:

    I'd bet that if you polled the 44% who don't know what religion Obama adheres to, you'd find a great deal of skepticism about the notion that the earth orbits the sun.

  • boatboy_srq on June 26, 2012 9:52 AM:

    I spent seven years in RC schools and 4 years at a SBC university, and I've done my share of traveling. There's little that infuriates me more than grand claims that all of Christendom has any consistent behavior/hegemony/threat/purpose/whatever. The divisions are multiple and severe, and the challenges diverse and frequently specific to individual denominations.

    The risk any faith runs is that one of its sects will reach the "convert or kill" point in its relations, not only with other faiths (or lack of faith) but with other sects of its own. Time and again we've seen this behavior. The whole "religious liberty" and "Christianity under assault" meme from the Wingnuts is to me the most hypocritical tactic they could have used: the goal is to encourage other members of the faith to support them, frequently in efforts that those allies would never support or condone themselves if not under the great Xtian umbrella.

    A commenter I read somewhere - it might even have been here - mentioned discussing with a Xtian family member whether s/he wanted this "Xtian Nation" these groups clamor for. When s/he said yes, the commenter asked whether the relative thought his/her sect would be the one making the rules (or even having any input into the process). The relative thought, said "no" and started to rethink the process. Given how fractious Christianity - and Xtianity as well - has proven, it would be instructive to see how many people would stand by all these efforts if they were challenged in the same way.

    In the meantime, Santorum is the kind of RC asshat that made the Reformation necessary, and wingnuts will be wingnuts.

    Captcha: oppressive, oreitym. Indeed.

  • Texas Aggie on June 26, 2012 2:11 PM:

    While we are on the topic of "Christianity," I may be wrong, but I have been told that the god of Christianity is a personal god who cares for each person individually. If in fact, that is true, then people like Robertson and the Grahams and others of their ilk most definitely do not believe in the Christian god. They are the ones who say that their god punished the people who died on 9/11 for the sins of others. The same thing with the ones who were killed by Katrina.

    Their god punishes people for the misdeeds of others. The Christian god would never do that.

  • kyron l. riley on June 26, 2012 3:40 PM:

    Have anybody thought about why religion is all of a sudden in the forefront of our media?.Everything happening whether persecution or praise of 'true' Christianity is no concidence.True Christianity is Jesus and Jesus only.