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August 21st, 2010
05:13 PM ET

My Take: Unpacking the 'Obama born Muslim' charge

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

CNN's John King was kind enough to let me say my piece about Islam, the Reverend Franklin Graham and President Obama last night. While I was barely able to get a word in edgewise in my last television appearance–on The Colbert Report–I was able to speak in full paragraphs on John King USA.

Still, I wish I had been able to say more.

I wish I had been able to say that Islam is indeed patrilineal in the sense that the children of a Muslim father are presumed to be Muslims at birth.

That said, as my Boston University colleague Kecia Ali recently reminded me, according to most Muslims everyone is a Muslim at birth–in the sense that each of us takes our first breath with the innate understanding that there is only one God, and that this God is not us.

However, to truly become a Muslim (which literally means “submitter”), you need to follow through on that intuition by submitting to God. You do this not by testing your DNA but by doing Islamic things, first and foremost by observing the Five Pillars of Islam.

I wish I had been able to say that Obama’s father was an atheist who did not raise his son to be a Muslim, so it is incorrect to say–as Graham did, that he "has renounced the prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam,"–because you cannot renounce something you never affirmed.

I wish I had been able to say that none of the Muslims I know see Obama as a Muslim. They all know full well that Obama is at least as Christian as is Franklin Graham.

I wish I had been able to say that, just as it is baptism that makes you Catholic and conversion that makes you an evangelical Protestant, what makes you a Muslim is saying the Shahadah (or profession of faith), sincerely and (ideally) in the presence of witnesses.

I wish I had been able to say that Islam is a choice rather than an inheritance. It is not a medical condition, passed down through sperm, like original sin in the Christian tradition. It is a spiritual community of individuals choosing, one by one, to submit to what Muslims believe are the revelations delivered by the one God, through an angel, to the world's final prophet.

Finally, I wish I had been able to say that I don't see myself as an apologist for Islam. Muslims are just as flawed as Jews or Hindus. Like Christianity, Islam is a religion that knows how to wage both war and peace. And, yes, it has its scripture-quoting terrorists.

To have said any of this, however, would have been to play into Graham’s disinformation campaign against both the president of the United States and the religion of Islam. The intention behind Graham’s recent interview with John King was not to tell us something true about Islam. It was to spread suspicions about President Obama and misinformation about Islam. Or, to put it in the language of the Ten Commandments, it was to bear false witness.

Over the last few days, a series of commentators, including Peter Beinart, have pleaded with President George W. Bush to weigh in on the bitter controversy swirling around the Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero. As I was speaking on "John King USA" last night, I found myself pining not for President Bush but for the Reverend Billy Graham.

I don't think Franklin Graham's father was a saint. But at least "America's Pastor" focused on preaching the truths of the Christian gospel rather than spreading lies about rival religions. And for all his hobnobbing with presidents from Eisenhower on, he usually managed to stay above the political fray.

Franklin Graham, in comparison, is looking increasingly sounding like a garden variety political hack, carrying the holy water for the most unholy elements in American society.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Christianity • Culture wars • Islam • Leaders • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (100 Responses)
  1. Tyrone

    The white control media is dictating their opinion and a racial mentality to the public! It is so obvious! They all report the same spend and the same polls are refer to NEVER telling the public you was polled or how many...which in very important! They want to blame President Obama for everything wrong with the country! I am an Independent. I have been a Democrat most of my life was raised by parents who were Democrat. I watch all of the Sunday morning news talk shows all mostly white only host. I used to love watching and listening to Tim Russert on Meet the Press. Everyone knew that he was a Democrat but his shows were fair and informative! Under President Obama it is so obvious that the white control media has a racial opinion that they just can't hide. I cannot stand the tone and style of David Gregory. He ALWAYS lets the Republican take over and talk as long as they wish it is so obvious. His comments and questions are his personal opinions and he goes out of his way with glee to attack his Democrats guests. A good journalist is fair and neutral. When I was in school one of my teacher said always check your source and it is true. As I mentioned I watch all of the news programs, who usually discuss the same topics and a lot of the time with the same guests. At one time I too bought into the song and dance that Fox News was phony and biased and after watching Sean Hannity he prove that they are also racist and the song and dance was true. Chris Wallace (son of Mike Wallace) is the worse host on Sunday mornings and next is GMA George Stephanopoulos of This Week, the horrible is David Gregory. Gregory constantly gives his biased, slanted position which means he loses credibility as a journalist. If he wants to talk partisan politics than he should go to work for the Republicans and stop taking Meet the Press into the category of slanted, biased journalism.They all reported on Tea Party anger then all of the sudden it became Americans are angry! Never asking people that benefited by the stimulus package like Wall Street and the many banks it saved! The truth is not everybody is angry and some of the idiot that said they are angry have no reason!

    October 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
  2. Tyrone

    Talk about white racist ignoracne and bullying just look at the white so-call Christian protesting with sign at a white soldier funeral! The shame is that many whites don't speak out against the evil! Attacking the dead is shameful! White racism in America is ones of the strongest forms of bullying and has gone on for century! So when people are told to stand up to the bully with the notion he or she will back down . That is not true and only happen in white movie and white TV shows! Blacks have stood up spoke out and march and died and where beat and murdered standing up to white racist bullying! And the white racist bully mentality gets stronger over the years! Under President Obama their have been more threats to an American President's life! That has taking on record numbers! More white militant group Under President Obama more white anti-America groups! Hate and divide is the Program of the white Republican Party that also encourage bullying and hate and divide! HELLO TEA PARTY"...... We see white reality shows that encourage bullying and fights verbal and physical like MTV " Real World" Jersey Shore"The Challenge: Cutthoat". The Housewives of "whatever"...... Then it's Jerry Springer" a white disgusting show that not only encourage violent but promote the show for it's violent! Many white show on TV encourage bullying and violent then have the nerve to wonder why American children of all race are violent and become bully! They look at Judge Judy a white woman that is educate and in authority. But treats the litigant that come into the courtroom like second class citizen! She scream yells and calls litigant names like idiot 'fools' ignorance' moron' and one white male litigant she refer to as "This Thing! This makes her a bully because number one she already has power over the litigants! Given to her by America's justice system! Second she knows that if the litigant respond like she talked to them she can just dismiss their cases.... THAT IS EVIL!... THAT IS A BULLY!!!!! That same bullying behavior is taught to America's young that is taught to white police officers that abuse their authority and bully black women and children black senior citizen and especially black males! That racist bullying is in America's government and has been forever! So we all must wake up and take responsibility for not identifying the racist bullying in America and how it is taught. Whites must take a leadership stand against bullying in America! They are the majority and with that comes responsibility! White are more likely to be in authority and as a matter of history have disrespected authority and theirselves!

    October 7, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  3. Tyrone

    To think a war was started in Iraq and the Republican President and Republican Congress voted for it! Turns out their was NO ( WOMD) Weapon of Mass Destruction the lie that President G. W. Bush gave reason to attacking Iraq! As a result 4,400 plus American troops lost their lives for NOTHING! Today President Obama has begin to end that needless war only to be criticize for voting against the surge that Republican claim helped to secure the Iraq country. Which also turns out to be another LIE! The truth is the idiot Republican don't understand! That had Republican had just one working brain they would understood that there was NO need to attack Iraq so there would had not been a need for a surge! Today President Obama because of his stimulus package he has STOP the recession and stabilize the country! And now started to rebuild the great American country by re-tooling and reconstructing finance and creating a plan for two wars! All the while being attack by Republican on his birth Certificate where he was born . President Obama been called a Socialist" a Muslim" a Racist" Weak" Stupid" Unattached" Unprofessional etc.. He NEVER attack Republican BUT on the issue and their uncaring behavior and the fact they have no plan to clean up the mess they create! The Republican plan is to criticize President Obama and vote NO ( Without Reason) and demonize anything and everything President Obama attempts to correct! Today white Tea Party member and white Republican are rewarding Republicans with their votes! After witnessing the Republican turn a surplus into debt and causing the needless deaths of American troops in IRAQ!

    September 27, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  4. Tyrone

    THE REPUBLICAN PARTY AND FEAR

    In the beginning both white Republicans and white Democrats greeted blacks in the same way! With hatred and discrimination and fear! Then Former Republican President Richard Nixon came and the Republican Party start to play fear and blame games! Blacks where to be fear and blame for all financial wrong in America and all crime! Then Former President Reagan took that mentality to a different level! He refuse to speak to any so-call white elected black leadership! I believe because of his Alzheimer he just didn't know to care about black issue! Under Reagan hatred in America went to a new level!The Republicans also under Reagan high jack Christianity and spoke as if they where the higher moral party! So they told the public to fear Russia and black people then to fear Hispanic and black people! Then Americans where told to fear Arab and black people Afghan and black Iraqis and black people! Now today with the first black President Republican are telling the public to fear President Obama! They started while he was running for President. They attack his father mother grandparent his Pastor they totally demonize him. They attack and harass church members and members that where shut in with death sickness! The Republican Tea Party who said nothing under President Bush when he turn a surplus into debt for America and cause American troops death for NOTHING in Iraq ( NO-WOMD)! There was no Tea Party but under President Obama who is trying to clean up and re-start the country! The Tea Party want America to fear President Obama. They have called him a socailist a racist a idiot weak. They have made statement that "President Obama does not listen to the people' We want our country back "President Obama is the worst President ever" President has done nothing in two years in office" Keep the Government out of my social security" No new Taxes" Stop the Spending!

    September 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  5. Acushla

    In Christianity People are Ecclesia Christians or they are not. Obama is not as he supports inflicting the agony of pain on babies in the womb when they are being aborted.

    September 18, 2010 at 3:08 am |
  6. Tyrone

    A WAR FOR NOTHING

    As a former Marine I was totally outrage at the coverage of the ending of the Iraq War by the white control media! It wasn't long ago that the public could turn on the news and hear "our troops " our American hero" ! Then President Obama came into office and the military achievements are off the news map. The Afghanistan War is criticize by the top general and the white control media reports on how there is no corporation with the President of Afghanistan and the United States! The war in Afghanistan is going badly the war is going badly is repeated over and over by the white control media! Then it's the war in Iraq that the white control media continue to play up the surge even after Bush/ Cheney is out of office! The world now knows that there would had not been a need for a surge if President Bush had just half a brain! There was no WOMD ( Weapon of Mass Destruction) therefore no need to attack Iraq no need for the Iraq War! But getting back to my outrage! 4,300 plus American troop DEAD nearly 100,000 wounded another 45% suffer from mental illness! 33% divorcing 41% can't find employment and 12% losing their homes! All for a war that Bush/ Cheney started with no plan and no proper armor! But the white control media both liberal and conservative gave the men and women hardly no coverage on their return from Iraq. But when Tiger Woods held a press conference the media cut into programs to hear all the details! SHAME ON US ALL! Men and women of all race and religion fought and died for you! And the white control media allowed politic and hate and divide to disrespect America and the troops! The collective mentality to demonize and belittle anything and everything that President Obama attempts to do is obvious and shameful! Blaming President Obama for the mess that Bush/ Cheney did is outrageous! President has done more then many Presidents before him. But it is played down by the white control media! And the white Republican negative spend is picked up and repeated over and over! I for one am sick of Republicans telling me what most Americans think and believe! Negative polls that nobody knows who participates in are quoted over and over by the white control media! When President Bush was in office there where polls that said the Iraq war was WRONG! The Republican Party could careless and continue the war! So they don't care what the public said. It's about POWER! The first black President is held to a different standard then the past 43 white Presidents!

    September 10, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  7. Tyrone

    The first reference in Latter Day Saint writings describing dark skin as a curse and mark from God refers to Lamanites. Now I just heard that the The Latter Day Saint want to build a church in Philly. Unlike the Mosque in New York there is no protest. Child molesters and a religion that teaches black people are curse and a evil race gets a past from white protestors! They can build and continue to molest children! The Latter Day Saint movement is a group of religious denominations and adherents who follow at least some of the teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr., who published the Book of Mormon in 1830. This religion knows it's a evil religion so they first donated $300,000 to a program that helps ex-offenders. That way they look like they are good people! The same way former Boston Mass. Governor Willard Mitt Romney did when asked about his choice of religion. He pretended to cry like he was hurt about the way his religion thought of dark skin people! LIAR! He didn't quit the religion nor was he criticize by the white control media like Senator Obama was about his choice of church!He was given a past! Just like with healthcare in Boston Mass. under Romney he gets it past as Governor and he is a not called a socialist! White America is straight up hypocrites! Now I want to see how the white control media will report the Latter Day Saint building of their church in Philly! All Muslim are being blame for what three or four extremely crazy Muslim did on 9/11! Shame on all Americans and especially the white control media for not showing leadership! For not saying loudly that this is America that stands for freedom of religion! And for not pointing out the double standard of the healthcare situation between Boston Mass. and the rest of America! The sick bigot racist white people against the building of the Mosque should be identify as such! Also where is the protest against the Catholic Church that over the many many year have participated in child molesting!

    September 10, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  8. Tyrone

    The building of the Mosque in New York shows the racist mentality of white America that has destroyed this country! The white control media is also promoting the hatred and lying about 71% of Americans against the building of the Mosque! The truth is 71% number was taken from a group of 5,000 polled! This lying number is suppose to reflect what 400 million Americans THINK! The Latter Day Saint are going to build a church in Philly without any protest from white American. A religion that practice child molesting and teach that blacks are a curse race! GO FINURE! In by 52 years on earth as a black American I have witness a white controlled America lie and distort the truth about American history! They have inserted lies into Christianity to make them look like a superior race! Americans history book portrait them as hero many times leaving out the evil fact of a white person past evil and immoral acts! Like Thomas Jefferson who raped a young 15 year old black girl and father 6 children with her! This was the signer of America's Constitution and the third President of the United State! I remember my father that serve in the Korean War! He told story of horrible disrespect and discrimination against black Americans during the Korean War by a white racist government and fellow white troops. While blacks where fighting and dying for a country that hated and disrespect them white where no better then the enemy! My father told story of horrible living condition barrack with no running water and how white troops could get in front of a black troop in the Mess Hall line. Many time the meal of the day became soup for the black troops! Black where put on the front line while white coward in back! White that where totally incompetent where promoted over better black troops who truly deserve the promotion! The same practice went on when I enter the Marines in 1977 and when my brother enter in 1976! Today people like Franklin Graham has the nerve to call the Muslim religion a evil a religion!White Baptist Pastor stood silent as black where enslave murder and raped by white men and women! Male Catholic Priest have rape and molested boy for years that continue to this day! White Mormon practice child molesting and teach that black people are a curse race! Then Franklin Graham has the nerve to condemn the way Muslim women are made to dress forgetting how Catholics nuns dress almost the same way! Before any white person condemn Muslim in Afghanistan they must remember how blacks where treated in the past and to date in AMERICA!

    September 10, 2010 at 9:49 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.