Shall we set ourselves on fire at the news spat out by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life today that 18 percent of Americans recently polled believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim? Shall we pour gasoline over our heads before torching ourselves because the number of those who think he’s a Muslim is up from 11 percent, recorded in March 2009, and up from 12 percent in March 2008, when the average American couldn’t spell his name let alone name his religion?
I’ve got a book of matches and a gallon can of gasoline here, if you want to go first.
You probably do because you probably have a higher opinion of your fellow citizens than I do. But before you strike that match, I’ve got some more bad news. The Pew poll’s other finding is that while 47 percent of Americans thought Obama was a Christian in 2008, 34 percent thought so this summer.
Maybe you’d like to drink some of that gasoline before you commence incineration.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that the percentage of Republicans who think that Obama is a follower of Allah has risen from 17 percent to 31 percent between March 2009 and August 2010. But who among you are prepared for the news that the percentage of Democrats who think the same of Obama has risen from 7 percent to 10 percent? Or that this falsehood is also gaining currency among independents! Yes, 10 percent of independents thought Obama kicked with that foot in March 2009. In August 2010, 18 percent held that mistaken view.
Don’t these people read newspapers or watch TV? As a matter of fact, many do. According to the poll, 60 percent (PDF) of those who believe Obama is a Muslim also told the pollsters that they learned it from the media. Seeing as I can recall no major or minor media report that presented proof that would convince any sentient creature over the age of 10 that Obama is a Muslim, I’m starting to feel better. The 18 percenters are imagining things. Non-media sources cited by the poll’s respondents include Obama’s behaviors or own words (11 percent), nonspecific things they’ve heard or read (7 percent), the Internet (7 percent), things heard or read during the presidential campaign (6 percent), Obama’s ancestry (4 percent), and so on.
Unfortunately, the percentage of poll respondents who said Obama is a Muslim and could also successfully define Islam was not on the list of questions. Nor was the question, “If a Muslim bit you on the ass, would you be able to identify his religion?” I’m guessing that the percentage of respondents who would answer yes to either of those questions would be low, as would the percentage who could accurately describe the tenets of faith observed by Muslims.
What we do know from the Pew survey is that beliefs about what religion Obama practices closely track the political assessment of him: About two-thirds of respondents who think Obama is a Muslim disapprove of the job he’s doing as president, while about two-thirds of respondents who believe Obama is a Christian approve of his performance.
I’d be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn’t also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.
That’s why I always carry matches.
Addendum, Aug. 20: Here’s Dave Weigel’s take.
Get lit! Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or bask in the sunshine of my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Muslim in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.