A substantial and growing number of Americans say that Barack Obama is a Muslim, while the proportion saying he is a Christian has declined. More than a year and a half into his presidency, a plurality of the public says they do not know what religion Obama follows.
A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama’s religion is. The survey was completed in early August, before Obama’s recent comments about the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center.
The view that Obama is a Muslim is more widespread among his political opponents than among his backers. Roughly a third of conservative Republicans (34%) say Obama is a Muslim, as do 30% of those who disapprove of Obama’s job performance. But even among many of his supporters and allies, less than half now say Obama is a Christian. Among Democrats, for instance, 46% say Obama is a Christian, down from 55% in March 2009.
The belief that Obama is a Muslim has increased most sharply among Republicans (up 14 points since 2009), especially conservative Republicans (up 16 points). But the number of independents who say Obama is a Muslim has also increased significantly (up eight points). There has been little change in the number of Democrats who say Obama is a Muslim, but fewer Democrats today say he is a Christian (down nine points since 2009).
When asked how they learned about Obama’s religion in an open-ended question, 60% of those who say Obama is a Muslim cite the media. Among specific media sources, television (at 16%) is mentioned most frequently. About one-in-ten (11%) of those who say Obama is a Muslim say they learned of this through Obama’s own words and behavior.
Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing. Those who are unsure about Obama’s religion are about evenly divided in their views of his performance.
The new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life – conducted July 21-Aug. 5 among 3,003 respondents reached on landlines and cell phones, and interviewed in both English and Spanish –finds that despite increasing uncertainty about Obama’s religion, the public generally says he handles his religious beliefs appropriately.
The public sees Obama as less influenced by religion compared with George W. Bush when he was president. Yet relatively small percentages say Obama mentions his faith too infrequently or that he relies too little on his religious beliefs when making policy decisions.
Currently, 41% say Obama relies on his religious beliefs “a great deal” (14%) or a “fair amount” (27%) when making policy decisions; in August 2004, 64% said Bush relied on his religious beliefs either a great deal (26%) or a fair amount (38%).
Nonetheless, as was the case with Bush, the public generally says that Obama relies on his religious beliefs the right amount when making policy decisions. Roughly half of Americans (48%) think that Obama relies on his beliefs the right amount when making policy, while 21% say he relies too little on his beliefs and 11% too much; in 2004, slightly more (53%) said Bush relied on his beliefs the right amount when making policy. In addition, about as many say Obama (53%) mentions his religious faith and prayer the right amount as said that about Bush (52%) in 2006, though far fewer say Obama mentions his faith too much (10% vs. 24% for Bush).
The survey also finds about half of the public (52%) says that churches should keep out of politics, while 43% say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions. That is largely unchanged from 2008, but over the previous decade (from 1996 to 2006), narrow majorities had expressed support for churches’ involvement in political matters.
The decline since 2006 in the number saying that churches should speak out on social and political issues has been broad-based, including Democrats and Republicans and people from a variety of religious backgrounds. The percentage of black Protestants who say churches should speak out on political matters has dropped sharply, going from 69% in 2006 to 53% today.
Despite the growing opposition to political involvement on the part of churches, most people continue to say they want political leaders who are religious. About six-in-ten (61%) agree that it is important that members of Congress have strong religious beliefs. And as in previous surveys, a slight plurality (37%) says that in general there has been too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders.
The survey also finds:
•The Republican Party continues to be more widely viewed as friendly toward religion than the Democratic Party. However, both parties are facing declines in the percentages saying they are friendly to religion.
•The religious landscape is far more favorable to Republicans than was the case as recently as 2008. Half of white non-Hispanic Catholics (50%) currently identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up nine points since 2008. Among religiously unaffiliated voters, who have been stalwart supporters of Democrats in recent elections, 29% currently identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up from 25% in 2008 (the proportion identifying as Democrats has fallen seven points since then). And 33% of Jewish voters identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up from 20% in 2008.
•Roughly six-in-ten people (58%) have heard of the “religious right,” while 41% are familiar with the “religious left.” Among those who have heard of the religious right and the religious left, sizable numbers express no opinion as to whether or not they generally agree or disagree with them.
NOTE: This report includes comparisons of opinions among different religious groups, which are based on a combination of religious tradition and race/ethnicity. The categories White evangelical Protestants, White mainline Protestants and White Catholics do not include Hispanics. Similarly, Black Protestants do not include Hispanics. Hispanic respondents can be of any race. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish.