How Not To Answer Questions About Obama’s Religion

There’s no written rule about what you’re supposed to say when asked if Barack Obama is a Muslim. But manners, respect for the truth, and disdain for the ugly rumors still circulating about his religion would suggest that you’d say something like, “No, Barack Obama is not a Muslim.”

But somehow, the rival camps can’t seem to bring themselves to utter those words. Last week on 60 Minutes , Hillary Clinton stopped short of an outright denial: “I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn’t any reason to doubt that,” she said. When pressed on whether she believes he is Muslim, she said, “No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know.”

Then today on MSNBC’s Morning Joe , McCain adviser Charlie Black used similar phrasing , saying he “take[s] him at his word” that Obama is not a Muslim.

What’s the game here? It’s like they’re hedging just in case it turns out one day that Obama is indeed Muslim, as if Tim Russert would then read back their quotes to them and demand to know how they could have been so sure. You could argue that it’s impossible to know someone’s religion in their heart of hearts. But come on. If someone said they were going to “take Hillary Clinton at her word” that she’s a Christian, they’d be rightly mocked. Obama’s case should be no different.

A recent NBC/ WSJ poll showed that 13 percent of voters still think Obama is a Muslim. That’s up from 8 percent in December, suggesting that the smear (and yes, given the motivation, I’m comfortable calling it a smear) is getting traction. (See the full poll here .) For a campaign adviser, let alone a rival candidate, to answer the question of Obama’s religion in a less-than-definitive way—as if you’re just guarding against saying something you don’t know for sure—merely plays into the hands of rumor-mongers.