With so much traffic on the low road in American politics, you’d imagine a politician or two might take the high road simply to beat the congestion. Sunday on Meet the Press, Mitch McConnell was asked about the Pew poll that showed 31 percent of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim. He said, “The president says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word. I don’t think that’s in dispute.” If you only paid attention to his first two sentences, as some pundits did, you might think McConnell was trying to keep doubt alive by suggesting the matter was one of debate. If you were patient enough to listen to the last sentence, you heard him say that the matter is not one of debate at all.
If McConnell wasn’t trying to stir the pot, he also wasn’t trying to lower the boil. What you didn’t hear McConnell say was that the whole notion that Obama is a Muslim is ridiculous because by any standard we use to evaluate the religious beliefs of our leaders, President Obama is a Christian. Nor did he go on to say that any politician who tries to benefit from this urban legend—by courting either Islamophobes or conspiracy nuts who think Obama is engaged in some kind of systematic deception—should be ashamed of himself.
He also did not produce a baby unicorn. That is to say, expecting the events of the previous paragraph would ever happen in real life is a fantasy. We can define our politics by the outrageous things people say. Rep. Joe Wilson yelled, “You lie” during a presidential address to Congress. Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor a racist, and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said, “Republicans want you to die quickly.” But the shamelessness of our politics can also be measured by silence. It’s just as embarrassing that in a case like this, no politician will take the high road against their political interest.
Fine. If we can’t have Boy Scouts in office, let’s try it another way. Shouldn’t there be someone taking the high road if for no other reason than it is unoccupied? Often in politics, doing the one thing no one else is doing usually gets you air time and exposure. But it’s harder to tread the high road in an election year. For Republicans whose constituents dislike the president, there’s no advantage in going out of your way to stick up for him. That’s why McConnell kept trying to get back to talking about the economy. He was trying to stay on the issue voters care about.
Why is the burden on Republicans? They benefit from the misinformation, and the poll shows the myth has taken hold most sharply among their supporters. If one of them doesn’t speak up, we may have to conclude that the GOP will allow any untruth to spread so long as it helps the party.
Republicans and conservatives aren’t the only ones who don’t bother to do the right thing. During the primaries, Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers passed around Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mails. Hillary Clinton gave a McConnell-esque response when asked whether she thought Obama was a Muslim. And Clinton’s campaign strategist Mark Penn talked about making Obama’s otherness the central pitch of the Clinton campaign. That’s part of what the Muslim charge is about—making the president seem like something foreign, mysterious and unfamiliar to Americans.
Evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham bypassed the high road too. Though his father made a career out of sudden conversions to Christ and he has continued that tradition, the younger Graham seemed rather lukewarm about whether Obama’s Christian rebirth (described at the end of Dreams From My Father) really took. Saying Obama was “born a Muslim” (in fact, Obama’s Muslim-born father and Christian-born mother were both areligious), Graham seemed skeptical of Obama’s Christian identity. “That is what he says he has done,” said Graham. “I cannot say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”
Those who doubt Obama’s faith practice selective hearing in its highest form. It requires real discipline to hear only Obama’s remarks that might identify him in any way with Islam and miss all of the others that refer to his Christian faith. So when the president spoke in Cairo, people heard him say how his father’s Kenyan family included generations of Muslims but went la,la,la, la seconds earlier, when Obama declared, “I’m a Christian.” (A Republican national committeewoman, Kim Lehman, who says she believes Obama is a Muslim, seemed almost religious about her refusal to inform herself about this speech,)
During his political career, Obama has been quite comfortable talking about his faith and the particularities of his Christian beliefs. Inviting discussion about this aspect of his life has not always benefited Obama. Two years ago he faced a crisis over connections to his Christian pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Earlier, in 2006, Obama gave a high-profile speech about his faith and received a wave of criticism from progressives, many of whom compared him to George Bush.
It’s hard work to sustain doubt about the president’s faith or to believe he doesn’t express it enough. At one point, Politico reported that Obama had actually invoked Jesus more than Bush. He often talks in personal terms. “I found myself drawn—not just to work with the church but to be in the church,” Obama said at Notre Dame in May 2009. “It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.” Search for Christ on the White House Web site and the first item you’ll find is the president’s remarks at an Easter prayer breakfast. He didn’t just welcome his “brothers and sisters in Christ,” but also talked at length about why Christ’s resurrection and the power of redemption meant so much to him. Previous presidents may have attended church, but Obama was doing something more. He was witnessing. Different churches may have different practices, but the ones I’ve attended don’t usually greet such expressions of faith with scorn. The usual response is to say Amen.