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Why do more people think Obama is a Muslim?

By John Sides

By now, you've probably heard of the Pew Center poll that found that fewer Americans believe Obama is a Christian and more believe he is a Muslim or simply don't know what his religion is.  The question is: Why have people's beliefs changed?

One hypothesis proffered by Newsweek and Jack Shafer is that some Americans are just dumb.  They believe in stuff like ghosts and astrology, so why not this about Obama?

That doesn't get us very far.  It seems hard to imagine that Americans suddenly got dumber between March 2009 and August 2010, when the Pew polls were conducted.

A second hypothesis comes from political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who notes that there have been numerous attempts by some media commentators and political leaders to insinuate that Obama is Muslim.  He writes:

Rather than faulting the public for the weaknesses of human psychology, we should identify the elites who deceive citizens with false information and hold them accountable for their role in fostering this myth. It's time to stop blaming the victims.

If Nyhan's hypothesis is true, we would expect to see sharper changes over time among people who are, first, predisposed to believe bad things about Obama.  This implicates Republicans, and, indeed, Pew found that Republicans registered the sharpest increase in the belief that Obama is Muslim.  Second, among Republicans, we should see especially sharp changes among those who pay attention politics and the news, because these people who would be more likely to watch, read, or hear any commentators and leaders suggesting that Obama is Muslim. 

Via a contact at Pew, I asked them for additional information from their March and August polls: the results broken down not only by party, but also by political attentiveness. The best measure of attentiveness in their surveys was the respondent's level of formal education, which is a plausible but imperfect proxy for attention to politics. Nevertheless, it's what I had to use. 

Here are the trends from the March 2009 to August 2010 polls in the perception that Obama is a Muslim. I divide the sample into Democrats and Republicans. Independents who lean toward a party are counted as partisans (see here for why), so this analysis includes about 90 percent of the sample. I then divide the sample into the education categories that Pew provided: those with a high school degree or less, those with some college education, and those with a college degree or more. 

The growth in this perception among Democrats is small and is consistent across education levels: a 2-4 increase within each level.  By contrast, the growth in this perception among Republicans is more notable among those with some college education (a 19-point increase) or a college degree (15 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (9 points).  In other words, better educated Republicans have changed more than the less educated Republicans. This flies in the face of the "dumb Americans" idea and provides some support for Nyhan's hypothesis. The people most likely to hear the "Obama is a Muslim" meme are the ones whose beliefs changed most dramatically in the past 17 months.

Below is the full set of results, including the percentages who said Christian or Muslim or expressed no opinion.  (Click to make it larger.)  Again, this tells a similar story: larger changes among the better-educated Republicans. For example, the decline in the percentage of Republicans who believe that Obama is a Christian is larger among those with some college (-31 points) or a college degree (-24 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (-11 points).

Obviously, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this analysis.  It does not prove that some media personalities and political leaders are responsible for the increasing perception that Obama is a Muslim. But it points in that direction.

Note: I thank Jocelyn Kiley of Pew for providing additional data. Neither she nor the sponsors of the polls -- the Pew Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life -- bear any responsibility for my interpretation.

John Sides is Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He blogs at the Monkey Cage.

By John Sides  |  August 26, 2010; 1:50 PM ET
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I suppose it would be boring to point out that the highest percentage of people who hold these delusional beliefs are Republicans who "pay attention to news and politics." Hey! Washington Post! Is anyone awake in there???

Posted by: SqueakyRat1 | August 26, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I'd bet there's a pretty high correlation between believing Obama is a Muslim and watching Fox news.

Posted by: tl_houston | August 26, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

You ought to do an analysis of the percent of Muslims who believe Obama is a Muslim. :)

Posted by: bgmma50 | August 26, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

What percentage of people who believe Obama is a Muslim could accurately define the word "Muslim"? To them the word is just an epithet they can get away with using, which they know they can't with n****r.

Posted by: hellslittlestangel1 | August 26, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Wonder what the breakdown would be on the percent of the population that believes Obama is a Black Liberation Theologist?

Posted by: bgmma50 | August 26, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I'd really like to see a survey of the news programming (including Fox and MSNBC's "entertainment" programming) for Fox, Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC, showing how many segments featured stories which imply that President Obama is a Muslim. I'd also like, like tj_houston, to see a pool like this which includes where the respondants get their news.

Posted by: MosBen | August 26, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

"As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother's Christian background is irrelevant." - NY Times May 12th 2008

Americans are not Dumb. They know that he had a Muslim father, spent time in a Muslim country as a kid, and belittled Christians who "cling to their bibles". They also know that the church he went to as an adult had a minister who screamed from the pulpit "God Dam America!" and that this was unlike any Christian church they have ever attended. Who knows what is really in his heart? Is it really irrational to think that he calls himself a Christian only to further his political career?

Posted by: cummije5 | August 26, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to know how many of the better-educated Republicans in the data (1)also consider themselves members of or sympathetic to the Tea Party, (2) if the media source they where they heard Obama was Muslim from was (a) Fox News or (b) Rush Limbaugh or (c) a right-wing blog, and (3) whether they really think Obama is Muslim, or just think that's a good term for a President they don't like and don't agree with (ditto with the terms "socialist", etc.).

Posted by: reach4astar2 | August 26, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I tend to be too lazy to provide examples to illustrate my point. Thanks for picking up my slack, cummije5. You knucklehead.

Posted by: hellslittlestangel1 | August 26, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

"If Nyhan's hypothesis is true, we would expect to see sharper changes over time among people who are, first, predisposed to believe bad things about Obama."

Why would it be bad if Obama is, in fact, a Muslim?

Posted by: justin84 | August 26, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

The real question is who cares what religion the president is? He's the president, not a frakking preacher. And again, the value judgment that being Muslim is inherently and understandably a bad thing is problematic here. Of course, I do understand that for the set that believes he is Muslim, it is viewed this way, but still, no need to unquestioningly push that assumption.

The president could be a flying purple people eaterist for all I care, as long as he runs the executive branch in a reasonable way.

Posted by: KBfromNC | August 26, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Isn't this just a proxy for generalized fear? I wonder how this tracks w/ unemployment, etc?

Posted by: Chris_ | August 26, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Nyhan's hypothesis is undoubtedly correct. However, media elites dispensing deceptive or false information is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the apparently widespread belief that Obama is Muslim: people do have to be dumb to allow media personalities to sway them on such matters. (People would believe the moon is made of green cheese if it supported their political aims.)

A college degree doesn't exempt anyone (right or left) from teh dumb when it comes to political conviction: you believe what you want to believe, facts be damned, when ideological and political convictions are at stake.

I'd also like to recall that it's not only Fox News and Republican political operatives who have been at fault for implanting this belief in the population. Alas, I recall with sadness how I gasped when, in the heat of the primary season, 60 Minutes' questioned Hillary Clinton about rumors of Obama being a Muslim, and she responded with: "There's nothing to base that on ... as far as I know." That last little phrase did as much to implant this meme as anything else the right has said or done. It was just politics, but it had consequences.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 26, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

It just proves that Republicans who self-identify as being better educated are dumber that everyone. Nice to see some data backing up my hunch.

Posted by: jeirvine | August 26, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

"Isn't this just a proxy for generalized fear?"

A very reasonable question.

And I take issue with this statement: "This flies in the face of the "dumb Americans" idea..." The majority of the increase has been among Republicans, after all. Plus, I'm not at all convinced that we can reliably correlate college attendance with intelligence.

Posted by: slag | August 26, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

A few innocent dupes may actually believe Obama is a Muslim, a foreigner, and a socialist but most are deliberately professing a demonstrably false and implausible lie.

Fred Clark of Slacktivist described this dynamic in a pair of posts that use the Procter & Gamble satanism hoax as the primary example (links below), but it also sums up the teabaggers' false witnessing to a tea. Here is an excerpt:

[It] requires more self-deception than any of us is capable of on our own. That degree of self-deception requires a group.

This is why the rumor doesn't really need to be plausible or believable. It isn't intended to deceive others. It's intended to invite others to participate with you in deception.

Are you afraid you might be a coward? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel brave. Are you afraid that your life is meaningless? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend your life has purpose. Are you afraid you're mired in mediocrity? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel exceptional. Are you worried that you won't be able to forget that you're just pretending and that all those good feelings will thus seem hollow and empty? Join us and we will pretend it's true for you if you will pretend it's true for us. We need each other.

Posted by: varmintito | August 26, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

My theory: Responses to the Obama/Muslim question, like responses to a lot of other survey questions that are trending against Obama, are proxies for frustration that he has not magically fixed the economy.

Posted by: Porchland | August 26, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

I know a friend of my family who moved to Arizona has believed Obama is a muslim since the 2008 presidential election campaign. She hears this nonsense from her friends and neighbors in Arizona and believes them. "they have no reason to lie" she says. I tried to reason with her by presenting facts, but she prefers to live in her own little world. WE can thansk the likes of Rush and Beck and Hannity and Palin for the misinformation.

Posted by: alexnyc8 | August 26, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

"Rather than faulting the public ... we should identify the elites who deceive citizens with false information and hold them accountable for their role in fostering this myth."

I agree wholeheartedly. For example, I don't blame those who favored the PPACA based on the myth that it saves money and creates jobs; instead, I blame the media elites who propagated the myth.

The axiom holds true for the myriad of myths generated by liberal media elites, too, correct?

Posted by: rmgregory | August 26, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

As long as he's not strapping a Semtex vest to his daughter and sending them into a daycare center to do "Allahs" will, I could care less if he worships Mohammed or the park oak tree. Focus on fixing the economy. What ever gods you worship in your own time is your business.

Posted by: luca_20009 | August 26, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

"Obviously, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this analysis."

No? I think we can. Here it is: whether you believe Obama is a muslim is neither a function of your education level, nor the product of specific misinformation; it's a partisan issue. This is the single clearest predictor using this data.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | August 26, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Porchland said it, as have others, but to reiterate, the question is read by republicans as do I hate Obama? Answer yes. Some prototype of this mindset chimed in eary on the thread.

Ask them if he is a communist, satanist, child abuser, or owner of a collection of Michael Bolton records and bobbleheads. The answers will line up accordingly.

Posted by: undisclosedangler | August 26, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory, though you may have convincing arguments about the PPACA, they're hardly facts at this point, and are opposed by the CBO's findings, which, though they may end up being incorrect, are a plausible foundation on which to build an argument that the PPACA will be deficit reducing.

People that believe President Obama is a Muslim have no such solid foundation. Their belief is based on the fact that A) his grandfather converted to Islam, B) he spent some time in his youth in a majority Muslim country, and C) he has an Muslim-sounding name. This belief is opposed by the facts that A) he father was "basically agnostic", B) his schools were all secular, no matter where he lived, C) he has attended Christian churches for decades, and D) has numerous times professed that he is a Christian.

Differing opinions about the PPACA are policy arguments. This is just a conspiracy theory run rampant and egged on by certain conservative media figures and politicians.

Posted by: MosBen | August 26, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Probably a combination of elite right-wing opinion makers feeding the lie; genuinely uninformed folks who either don't know or don't care just guessing; finally a group that is screwing around with the pollster ("Obama is a Muslim" is white conservative synonym for "someone who I don't like and identify with" -- e.g. black people, most Catholics, liberal Jews, gays, feminists, Latinos, etc).

Posted by: JPRS | August 26, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I don't take the survey at face value.

I think saying the President is a Muslim has become a well understood way to announce your political tribe. Whether or not you actually believe the statement to be true is of secondary importance when answering the survey.

A little bit like saying "and God Bless the United States of America" in a political speech. It isn't really a statement of religious belief.

Posted by: patrickinmaine | August 26, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Why do so many Americans believe cutting taxes for the wealthy ALWAYS increases tax revenues (though the CBO says otherwise)?

Why do so many Americans believe gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage?

Why do so many Americans believe that Saddam was involved in 911?

Why do so many Americans believe that Obama was born in Kenya?

Why do so many Americans believe Clinton killed Vince Foster?

Why do so many Americans believe Ben Stein is an economist?

Why do so many Americans believe in death panels?

Why do so many Americans believe environmentalists sabotaged the BP well?

Why do so many Americans believe that Obama raised their taxes?

Why do so many Americans believe Obama was the one who signed TARP?

Why do so many Americans believe that the Earth has been cooling since 1998?

Why do so many Americans believe the USA has the best health care system in the world?

Why do so many Americans believe waterboarding is not torture and that torture is effective?

The answer to all these questions has to do with the fact we have the WORST media system in the world.

Posted by: lauren2010 | August 26, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Damn the Socialist Liberal Higher Education System!!! Didn't they get the memo about brainwashing all those impressionable students to support the liberal conspiracy?

Posted by: Jaycal | August 26, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

"I think saying the President is a Muslim has become a well understood way to announce your political tribe. Whether or not you actually believe the statement to be true is of secondary importance when answering the survey."

This is plausible and I've seen a lot of people argue in favor of it. But, if true, why do the education differences exist?

Posted by: y2josh_us | August 26, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

@lauren2010: "The answer to all these questions has to do with the fact we have the WORST media system in the world."

If only we had a ministry of truth. Then we could make sure that people learned all the approved truths.

I also don't take the survey at face value. And the obsession with it is, to be honest, really weird. I sort of want to go with the answer the article disputes. Why do "people" believe Obama is a Muslim? Answer: people believe all sorts of crazy junk. If I can meet several people in my life who are dead certain they've encountered ghosts and have experienced hauntings, that omens and portents are real, that they have past lives . . . well, then, it shouldn't surprise anybody that folks will come up with the counter-factual position on any question they keep being asked.

I also don't think much of those kinds of polls, anyway.

"So, do you think Obama is a Muslim, or a giant, sentient tree?"

"Um, a Muslim, I guess."

"Do you think Obama is a Muslim and I give you ten dollars, or you think he's a Christian and I punch you in the woohoo?"

"Um, the one where I get ten dollars."

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 26, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

This isn't a very good analysis for proving your hypothesis. The data could equally prove, for instance, that the educated Republicans who didn't used to think Obama is a Muslim have changed their minds because of what they've seen from him in the last 18 months: speeches in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world; initiating a more diplomatic approach towards Iran; trying to close Guantanamo; initially implying his support for the Cordoba mosque project. Maybe they've looked at all this and thought, "you know what, I didn't before, but all this suggests to me that he *is* secretly a Muslim". More educated Republicans are more likely to know about those things, after all. Your analysis doesn't prove your hypothesis any better than it proves the one I've just laid out.

Posted by: bigmandave | August 26, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

" "I think saying the President is a Muslim has become a well understood way to announce your political tribe. Whether or not you actually believe the statement to be true is of secondary importance when answering the survey."
This is plausible and I've seen a lot of people argue in favor of it. But, if true, why do the education differences exist? Posted by: y2josh_us"

Because these are the College educated republicans who also demand that Academia is horribly biased to liberal politics. This is their erect middle finger to pollsters who won't get their polls to find whatever Republican position they (they R's who think Obama is Muslim) agree with but America doesn't.

The University System has never been good at teaching people to think. It exists because, at its inception, it was founded by students who banded together and hired men who had reputations for knowledge to come and transfer that knowledge to the students. Since the students didn't have the knowledge, they could only hope the Professors reputation was justified.

College still fails too often in teaching students to think, but it is sometimes very effective in teaching some students to accept Professorial prejudice as thinking, and making that prejudice their substitute for thinking.

Posted by: ceflynline | August 26, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Hey JJenkins2...Do you know what annoys me? People who believe everything the press says and does. Your quote from Hillary Clinton was taken out of context, just as the jerks in the press took it out of context ON PURPOSE to help Obama. When asked if she thought Obama was a Muslin the first words out of her mouth were "Of course not." They the continued to badger her and badger her with the same line of questioning because they didn't like her first answer. Try to pay attention sometime. Hillary isn't to blame. The press is to blame-- and people like you who believe every sound bite you hear without question.

Posted by: stephanie2 | August 26, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

yeah that is true, major brands do give out free samples of their popular health products best place to check is send it to your friends

Posted by: joaquino27 | August 27, 2010 2:49 AM | Report abuse

Why do Americans think Obama is a muslim? His father was a muslim. His school records in Indonesia list him as a muslim. He has address most muslim nations to apologize for past US behavior. He supported Odinga in Kenya, who is a muslim and vowed to put Kenya under Sharia law. He gave 900 million to Gaza. He's given billions to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He directed NASA to make its main mission muslim outreach! He's gone against most Americans in supporting the mosque at ground zero. When you add it up, there is some very compelling evidence to believe he's muslim!

Posted by: Stephen44 | August 27, 2010 3:08 AM | Report abuse

I don't think of myself as a conspiracy-minded paranoid but I can't shake the idea that this has all been a well orchestrated campaign from the time that Obama appeared as a viable candidate. The Republican right-wing (a redundant phrase if ever there was one)media and consultants will keep pushing this as long as it benefits their prospects. It doesn't matter if it's true or not or whether it's damaging to the political fabric of the country to have 17% of the country believe something that is demonstratively and verifiably false. Woe to the poor republic and the fools that would willingly and gleefully lead it off a cliff to win an election.

Posted by: xpatriate | August 27, 2010 4:47 AM | Report abuse

The link between education and this Muslim misconception points to 2 factors, the change in college curriculum of the 70's and today's "Epistemic Closure" among conservatives that Julian Sanchez has described.

First, in the 70's there was a move among the liberal arts departments in American Universities to increase the variety in there curriculum's to promote diversity. While this movement was well known at the time, the unintended consequence was that the professional degree programs used this new variety to help cover the increasing amount of material that needed to be covered in an undergraduate degree.

In my Pre-med/Psychology program, 2 English requirements were replaced with Technical Writing and Presentation/speech and 1 History requirement with a History of Science course. The total of non-specialty courses was also reduced. Under these changes, the current generation of educated Republicans basically graduated from college with little or no real background in history, literature and in many cases science.

Add to this Julian Sanchez's Epistemic Closure and you have an supposedly educated portion of the population that non-skeptically gets their information from right-wing websites, talk radio and Fox and dismiss any contradictory evidence as mis-information from a Liberal Media.

Look no further than Stephen44 above. Every point in his posting is mis-information that originated from those right-wing websites.

Posted by: lcallen3 | August 27, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Justin84--"Why would it be bad if Obama is, in fact, a Muslim?"

Because he would be a liar.

Posted by: julie18 | August 27, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

"Because [Obama] he would be a liar [by not stating he was a Muslim]."

The part of John's article which I quoted refers to Republicans' belief that Obama being a Muslim would be a "bad thing", not their belief that he is a liar.

Somehow I guess that Republicans are more concerned about his alleged religious affiliation than his honesty. Had Obama declared he were a Muslim but we found out he secretly was a Christian, I somehow doubt there would be much gnashing of teeth by the right.

Anyway, pretty much everyone has told lies, and so we are all liars.

Given the hysterical and childish reaction a significant proportion of the American electorate would have if he said he was a Muslim, I'd give him a pass on this one.

I would be thrilled to get a politician whose only lie to the American people was about his or her true religious beliefs.

Posted by: justin84 | August 27, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

From these graphs, it is apparent that most Democrats can't discern a Christian from a pagan. How sad that so many are ignorant of the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I can say without reservations, that Mr. Obama is not a Christian! But I was not polled on this subject. I can only presume that a large block of those polled were from the African-American community, many of which think that Obama is their messiah, lacking any scriptural knowlege. How truly sad and pathetic that he has deceived so many.

Posted by: Jordan48 | August 28, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

So many people blame Fox. How stupid! You have to have tunnel vision to not think Obama's a Muslim. Latest: Obama halts prosecution of USS Cole bomber
Now why was it he didn't like to salute the flag?Why is the flag never in the background when he speaks? why didn't he want to sign Eagle Scouts certificates?The 1st Pres to NOT celebrate Christmas:The first pres to celebrate Ramadan?Who bowed to Saudi King?Why don't Muslims have to follow healthcare according to healthcare bill? etc. so many indications including his admitting it before he was running for Pres and “If things get rough, I will side with the muslims…” in his book. You think it wouldn't be important to Americans if he were Muslim? I think it definitely would, which is why they're trying so hard to push it back into the box.

Posted by: syd123 | August 29, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

President Obama is a lot of different things, but there is one thing he is not...

My Blog:

Posted by: williamdsimpson | August 30, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

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