The hobgoblin of little minds

by Kieran Healy on April 2, 2008

John Gruber twittered the following:

Suggestion for Gallup: how many Americans both (a) are offended by sermons of Obama’s Christian pastor and (b) think Obama is a Muslim?

Which led me to check out this Pew Center Report:

The recent controversy surrounding sermons by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Wright, and Obama’s March 18 speech on race and politics have attracted more public attention than other recent campaign events, according to Pew’s weekly News Interest Index. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) say they heard at least something about Wright’s sermons (51% a lot, 28% a little) and about half (49%) have seen video of the sermons. … There is little evidence that the recent news about Obama’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ has dispelled the impression that he is Muslim. While voters who heard “a lot” about Reverend Wright’s controversial sermons are more likely than those who have not to correctly identify Obama as a Christian, they are not substantially less likely to still believe that he is Muslim. Nearly one-in-ten (9%) of those who heard a lot about Wright still believe that Obama is Muslim.

{ 36 comments }

1

nnyhav 04.02.08 at 3:13 am

But Gore’s better than a sure thing!

2

Bryan 04.02.08 at 3:31 am

It is my understanding that some of those who think Obama is a Muslim think he’s a secret Muslim. And of course a secret Muslim would attend a Christian church—the better to keep the secret—so knowledge that he attended a Christian church would, for those people, count as evidence that he’s a Muslim.

3

christian h. 04.02.08 at 3:43 am

It makes perfect sense. They believe Obama is some kind of secret, stealth Muslim. That belief does not depend on his apparent affiliation.

4

bad Jim 04.02.08 at 3:47 am

After all, “God damn America” could be a perfectly Muslim sentiment, and Wright was wearing a dashiki at the time he said it. I wonder how many of the poll’s respondents think Reverend Wright is Muslim.

(BTW, I love seeing my little Gravatar in the preview window)

5

Seth Finkelstein 04.02.08 at 3:48 am

The idea that the Wright controversy should logically wipe-out the Muslim smear is a pretty funny Bad News / Good News type joke. As in:

“Mr Obama, as your campaign manager, I have some good news and some bad news for you.”
“Tell me the bad news first.”
“This Wright controversy is killing your favorability poll numbers – people are questioning your choice of pastor, where you go to Church, if you’re part of Black Liberation Theology.”
“That’s awful. What’s the good news?”
“This should help you against the attack that you’re a Muslim.”

But if you think about it more deeply, it’s not that hard to reconcile the concepts. Lots of people, especially politicians, make shows of religious pierty they don’t really believe in. Someone who said Obama’s a Muslim in his heart but makes a show of Christian piety because it’s good politics, is being unfalsifiable, but not strictly contradictory.

6

Roy Belmont 04.02.08 at 6:47 am

Since to the people thinking these odd simple thoughts being a Muslim doesn’t really mean being a Muslim, but being a “dark foreigner that wants to hurt us”, it’s not contradictory at all for them to see him as a member of the UCoC, and simultaneously a Muslim. Especially with Wright in a dashiki loudly condemning “America”.
No one’s overtly said Obama’s a Muslim anyway, at least no one that might be held accountable for it.
The brainwash is a lot like the one that was used about Saddam Hussein. “This man wants to hurt you, just like those 9/11 guys did.” Repeated often enough with enough innuendo and variety it becomes “This man is those 9/11 guys”.
The people doing the erroneous believing aren’t the problem. It’s the people doing the repeating.

7

bad Jim 04.02.08 at 8:05 am

Obama’s doing better, at least in one respect, than Gore did:

I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.“

Gore, as best I can recall, was more wishy-washy.

8

Ben Alpers 04.02.08 at 10:28 am

But if you think about it more deeply, it’s not that hard to reconcile the concepts. Lots of people, especially politicians, make shows of religious pierty they don’t really believe in. Someone who said Obama’s a Muslim in his heart but makes a show of Christian piety because it’s good politics, is being unfalsifiable, but not strictly contradictory.

Putting aside for the moment the fact that this story has nothing to do with reality, it also doesn’t entirely make internal sense.

If Obama were really a Muslim whose Christian piety was just for show, then details about his purported Christian church wouldn’t tell us anything about Obama’s actual beliefs. In this scenario, what Wright says would be irrelevant to evaluating (the secretly Muslim) Obama.

9

Nick 04.02.08 at 10:53 am

But . . . hang on . . . he’s actually Saddam Hussein’s nephew, right?

10

Dave 04.02.08 at 11:05 am

Whenever did a piece of political black propaganda have to have logic on its side?

In any case, you’re wrong, because “clearly” any kind of “christian” who can say “God damn America” is as close to being a “Muslim” as makes no difference, for a certain kind of audience.

as for #8, hush, or that one’ll be all over the interwebs by next week…

11

Brett Bellmore 04.02.08 at 11:05 am

“If Obama were really a Muslim whose Christian piety was just for show, then details about his purported Christian church wouldn’t tell us anything about Obama’s actual beliefs.”

Well, no, that doesn’t follow. It would, under that scenario, demonstrate what he thinks of Christianity, by the sort of church membership he thought would help him blend in. A secret Muslim with a less odious view of Christianity would have sought out a less odious church.

Personally, I think he’s really a Christian, and really comfortable with the Reverend’s rants. That’s what Ocam’s razor suggests, anyway.

12

freshlysqueezedcynic 04.02.08 at 12:52 pm

Just keep on fightin’ against the black man keeping you down, Brett.

13

richard 04.02.08 at 1:12 pm

Or he’s a person of syncretic faith who can reconcile Islam with Christianity. It’s been done before, you know… and if there’s a Muslim sect anywhere that marries the two, I’ll bet it’s somewhere in Indonesia.

What if he were secretly Jewish?

14

rm 04.02.08 at 1:42 pm

I live among these people in a Red State. This doesn’t surprise me one bit. Depress me, yes. Surprise, no.

These folks think that the violence in Kenya was about Muslims trying to take over. And Obama “is” a secret Muslim Kenyan who is the terrorists’ candidate for president. Facts do not matter; there is a pre-scripted narrative in which everything fits. Muslims = Communists = Jacobins, the all-purose enemy.

Did I mention it depresses me?

15

Josh R. 04.02.08 at 2:07 pm

Concerning people still believing Obama to be a secret Muslim, despite viewing various clips of his Christian minister, I think this Monkey Cage blog post about false political beliefs kinda touches on the dynamic in play.

16

Ben Alpers 04.02.08 at 2:23 pm

Well, no, that doesn’t follow. It would, under that scenario, demonstrate what he thinks of Christianity, by the sort of church membership he thought would help him blend in.

To be fair to this ridiculous scenario (though I don’t usually let the word “fair” and Brett B. anywhere in the same neighborhood), it would demonstrate not what Obama thinks of Christianity, but what he thinks of voters who care about Christianity.

And if we make the assumption (entirely unfair, though Brett makes it in his own actual view of the matter) that Rev. Wright’s brand of Christianity can best be understood by extrapolating from two soundbites, the problem with Secret Muslim Obama®’s embracing of Wright is not that this disses Christians (by suggesting, as Brett would have it, that Obama believes that Christians are, in general, attracted to anti-white rants (?!?)), but rather that Secret Muslim Obama® is not only a latter-day Manchurian Candidate, poised to sell us all into dhimmitude (or whatever it is that Secret Muslims™ are supposed to do), but also has Poor Judgment in selecting a Controversial Black Man as his pastor/beard, thus making him fall doubly short of the Commander-in-Chief Threshold. Remember, people, we’re electing someone who is Constitutionally allowed to break any law he feels like!

17

Matthew Kuzma 04.02.08 at 2:34 pm

I don’t think this is all that surprising. In order to know that Obama being Muslim would conflict with him having a Christian Pastor you have to know a lot of other things:

1) That Muslim is a faith that competes with Christianity. I’m sure a lot of people only recognize it as a label for our enemies, like Nazi or French.
2) You need to know that this pastor who is saying things that make you unhappy is of-interest because he’s actually Obama’s pastor and not someone affiliated with the campaign or his childhood friend or something silly like that.

18

CJColucci 04.02.08 at 2:45 pm

While the “Muslim” business is dispiriting — and Obama can’t even wax indignant about it because there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim — I doubt its political significance. I haven’t seen any polling that separates this out, but I’d bet a large sum of money that the set of potential voters who: (a) inaccurately believe he’s a Muslim and (b) don’t like it, is almost entirely subsumed under the class of people who (a) accurately believe he’s a Negro and (b) don’t like it.

19

a very public sociologist 04.02.08 at 2:54 pm

This is crazy. The truth is out there and easily accessible, and yet some prefer to stick to their prejudices. Let’s face it though, if you’re dumb enough to think Obama’s a Muslim on the sly you were never going to vote for him in the first place. Best bet is ignore this “constituency” and move on.

20

Ben Alpers 04.02.08 at 2:56 pm

What cjcolucci said!

One of the things that this campaign highlights is that while pretty open misogyny is seen as permissible by our nation’s political class, racism needs to be carefully disguised and dog-whistled. What links the Obama-is-a-Muslim meme to the Obama’s-minister-is-a-dangerous-America-hating-racist meme is the (largely unspoken but ever present) Obama-is-a-scary-Negro meme.

21

Brett Bellmore 04.02.08 at 4:06 pm

“And if we make the assumption (entirely unfair, though Brett makes it in his own actual view of the matter) that Rev. Wright’s brand of Christianity can best be understood by extrapolating from two soundbites,”

I’m rather bemused by the notion that it’s “only two soundbites”. I suppose there was a point where only two soundbites had been exposed, but it’s long since passed, and we now know Wright vents like that on a regular basis. I chalk this up to the racism of low expectations; He’s only a black preacher, who can expect better of him?

I, for one.

22

Witt 04.02.08 at 5:00 pm

I thought this was a good angle on the pastor controversy:

How people hear something depends on their own experience and worldview, says Teresa Fry Brown, who teaches the art of preaching at Emory University in Atlanta. “I listen to 60 sermons a week by black and white pastors, and you could find something in almost any one that is offensive to somebody.”

The key as to whether language is hate speech lies in a preacher’s overall message, according to Martin Marty, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School and renowned historian of religion. Dr. Marty, who has visited Trinity many times, says, “If Wright only had whites in his searchlight, you might call it [hate speech]. But he goes after the men in his church” about fatherhood, he puts himself and his people under the prophetic spotlight.

Prophetic preaching has been fundamental to the black church since the days of slavery. The Bible and its thundering prophets modeled a way forward that enabled black preachers to speak the hard truths while simultaneously envisioning a better future. [...]

As Dr. King once wrote, there can only be deep disappointment where there is deep love, Braxton says. That’s the way he sees Wright’s deep disappointment and anger, too – not as hateful speech, but simply “radical,” from someone who expects so much more.

Some say it may also be the style of preaching that puts people off, especially those used to a tamer message.

“Prophetic preaching involves critique and social analysis,” says Dr. Fry Brown. “One has to be able to assess the needs and issues of a people and then, using language the people understand, say, ‘This is what’s happening. God is not pleased. We need to do something about it.'”

23

abb1 04.02.08 at 5:10 pm

My parents tell me that he was educated in a radical Muslim school, and if he is the nominee they will vote for McCain.

24

shpx.ohfu 04.02.08 at 6:06 pm

This brings to mind last week’s survey in the Economist wherein 80% of Americans surveyed professed a belief in god, but only 55% in hell.

25

R 04.02.08 at 6:37 pm

I would guess that there are a fair number of people who make very little distinction in their minds between Christianity as seen in black churches, and Islam (at least the “black muslim” variety of Islam). Jesse Jackson, Rev. Wright, Malcom X and Louis Farrakan all blend together as angry black men.

26

richard 04.02.08 at 6:56 pm

educated in a radical Muslim school
Is that what they’re calling Harvard now? I guess with every president since Reagan going to Yale it’s hardly surprising.

27

Sebastian Holsclaw 04.02.08 at 8:31 pm

“Let’s face it though, if you’re dumb enough to think Obama’s a Muslim on the sly you were never going to vote for him in the first place. Best bet is ignore this “constituency” and move on.”

Since this seems to afflict Democrats as well as Republicans, Obama might want to worry about the constituency a little bit.

28

Righteous Bubba 04.02.08 at 8:33 pm

Right. He should promise those people candy.

29

thompsaj 04.02.08 at 10:06 pm

I grew up in a UCC church and attended a historically congregationalist liberal arts college. I think this means I’m awesome.

30

daniel 04.02.08 at 10:14 pm

they mistakenly forgot to poll americans as to whether they believe Rev. Wright is a muslim.

31

dawud 04.03.08 at 6:02 am

As a muslim who thought that the accusation that Obama was a ‘secret muslim’ was meant to be a slander, I actually thought along those ‘good news/bad news’ lines, but realize now that, as others have argued above, ‘muslim’ just means ‘dark baddies who don’t like us’ – I call to witness John McCain’s idiocy that Iran is funding al-Qaeda, a comment he repeated three times while in Iraq, even after being corrected – and obviously attributable not to a ‘senior moment’ but to his attempting to appeal to that American constituency which actually thinks that muslim=al-Qaeda=Shia and/or Sunni, all the same=bad guys who hate us…

argh…

32

abb1 04.03.08 at 8:51 am

…dark baddies who don’t like us…

Actually, I noticed in many cases it’s even worse than that; one doesn’t even have to be dark. Any association will do: the name, clothes, accent, facial features, anything. It really is exactly identical to standard 20th century antisemitism, and I believe it really is the same phenomenon.

33

Brett Bellmore 04.03.08 at 11:06 am

“It really is exactly identical to standard 20th century antisemitism, and I believe it really is the same phenomenon.”

Well, not quite, in that Jews weren’t really using the blood of Muslim babies in their Passover bread, but Muslims really do blow up people in public places using suicide bombers, behead people, and so on. That is to say, the one is about an imaginary evil, the other about a real evil which, while it isn’t remotely universal, sadly IS associated with a particular religion.

34

abb1 04.03.08 at 3:00 pm

Both are about equally imaginary evils, Brett.

People who blow up people in public (and other) places are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. In fact I suspect Jews and Christians in the last 50-60 years probably have been far ahead in the ‘blowing up people’ game. I’m sure you feel that they for the most part had good excuses to blow up people, but that’s just your opinion.

35

Brett Bellmore 04.03.08 at 3:29 pm

Abb1, there’s a difference between an evil not being exclusive to a group, and it being imaginary.

36

abb1 04.03.08 at 5:33 pm

I don’t understand what you’re getting at, Brett; I don’t see the logic. I see that you want to talk about the blood libel and contrast it with some real atrocities perpetrated by some Muslims.

Now, look, you could, as well, pick some libelous anti-Muslim stuff (shouldn’t be too difficult, a day’s worth of the LGF should have plenty) and contrast it with, say, Murder, Inc., or, for that matter, any number of ‘Jewish’ atrocities perpetrated by Israeli Zionists (here, read this, for example). And now what? What does it prove, what does it mean to you?

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