here & there:

Perceiving the President

posted by Aaron Weinstein

A recent Pew Research poll indicates that an increasing percentage of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim:

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.

Beyond the simple politics of the issue (how the White House will respond, for instance), the implications of the poll prove quite salient for a discussion of Man as a political being.  Those acquainted with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By are familiar with the theory that individuals understand everything in terms of metaphor.  Up is good, down is bad, et cetera.  This poll indicates that for all Americans—Democrats as well as Republicans—there seems to be a cultural connection between Christianity and perceived goodness.  Such an assertion is bolstered by the observation that fewer Republicans and Democrats believe Obama is a Christian at the same rate that their estimations of his job performance wane.  And in this simplified dichotomy, if Christianity equates with “good,” then Islam is bad.  The Pew Forum’s report continues in this vein:

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.

Rather than seeing job performance as a separate category from religious background, American citizens en masse seemingly lump the two together.  Can we ever break from this false dichotomy and disassociate religious background from this good/bad spectrum?  During the 2008 election, Obama voiced his confidence in the ability of the American public to do just that when addressing concerns that he had misrepresented his faith:

In the internet age, there are going to be lies that are spread all over the place. I have been victimized by these lies. Fortunately, the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for

One would certainly hope so.

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One Response to “Perceiving the President”

  1. avatar Michael says:

    I fall in your group of exceptions, one who believes Obama to be a Christian (and born in Hawaii, not Kenya) but one who is increasingly dissatisfied with his job performance. Part of his problem, I think, is a continuing tendency to involve himself and/or his office in issues that are not in the purview of the Presidency. Examples are his involvement in the case of his Harvard Professor friend and the Cambridge, MA, police, and the proposed mosque for Ground Zero. In the latter instance, he apparently supported both sides in sequence, and thereby turned both sides against him. It would have been far better to remain outside (and presumably above) the fray in both instances. Getting back to your original topic, though, I sadly do not share his or your hope that the American people are smarter than given credit for. I have to side with H.L. Mencken’s opinion that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

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