At the top of the news is an ABC report that the Reverend Franklin Graham said President Obama was “born a Muslim,” although “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 that the president is what he has said.”
The problem here is not theology or Constitutional law. People are born in cultural contexts and they have a right to change their beliefs. There is no religious test for the Presidency; it doesn’t matter whether the president is atheist, Muslim or Christian. The difficulty is political. Barack Obama had carefully crafted an image designed to minimize his Muslim roots and by necessity downplayed his Christian associations in order to reap the benefits of straddling both worlds. It was an attempt to square the circle. Now the circle is reverting to itself.
Graham described the situation accurately:
I think the president’s problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam 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. 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 that the president is what he has said. The Islamic world sees the president as one of theirs.
But in order for the Islamic world to see the president “as one of theirs,” the change from Islam to Christianity had to be toned down. If the president had played up his acceptance of Jesus Christ and “renounced the prophet Mohammed” it would have not have gone well in the Muslim world. So Obama selected what seemed like a good PR strategy of fudging at the edges. It may have sounded like a good idea at the time. He would have it both ways: an “obvious” Christian with links to the Reverend Wright’s Christian church but still someone the Islamic world could see “as one of theirs.”
But as often happens when someone tries to have it both ways the politics of elision can get you into trouble with both sides. In this case the president tried to establish his Christian “bona fides” and retain his Muslim ones in a loose sort of way. He did not have to do this. Obama had the choice of being definite about his beliefs, taking the PR lumps and getting past it. Obama could, like Julia Gillard of Australia, have claimed to be an atheist. He could have claimed to have been a Muslim the political consequences be damned. Or he could have embraced Christianity with a zeal of convert. What he could not do was don the mantle of both Christianity and Islam at the same time.
Polls which showed that large parts of the public considered him Muslim were a sign that this PR strategy was collapsing. Now he is placed in the unenviable position of having to choose between sweethearts. He can no longer visit them on alternate days. The days of sending one message to Muslims and another to his domestic audience are waning.
None of this settles where the president’s true belief lies. Belief is an inward state, often unsettled in the person himself. Sometimes it is something given scant attention except in moments of danger, distress or imminent death. But an outward identity is a palpable thing. It describes how we announce our beliefs, if we have any, to the world. The president, as Franklin Graham says, can only be taken at his word. The problem is that he has sent too many, too conflicted and too complex a signal to be readily understood. He was the blank canvas on which people projected their dreams; and to which they have now projected their fears.