August 22nd, 2010
06:03 PM ET
Long before last week's revelation that a large and growing chunk of Americans believe that the President is Muslim - and that only about one in three Americans correctly identify him as Christian - Barack Obama was battling misperceptions about his religion.
In early 2008, right as Obama was in desperate need of a win in the South Carolina primaries - he'd beaten Hillary Clinton in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses but lost to her in subsequent contests in New Hampshire and Iowa - false rumors swirled that he was Muslim.
Obama's father was raised in a Muslim household, though the presidential candidate had repeatedly called him an agnostic, and Obama had spent time attending an Indonesian school where most students were Muslim. An e-mail smear campaign alleged that the White House hopeful was disguising his true faith.
In South Carolina, whose primaries were Obama's first electoral test in the Bible Belt, that was a big problem.
Less than a week before South Carolina's primary, Obama began calling media outlets with large Christian audiences to set the record straight. His first such interview was with Beliefnet, where I was then political editor.
With Thursday's Pew poll showing that nearly one in five Americans think Obama is Muslim, our conversation from 2008 - conducted by phone while the future president sat aboard his grounded campaign plane - has become relevant again.
Here's what Obama told me in 2008 when I mentioned the false rumors that he was Muslim:
Clear enough. Obama had almost zero contact with his tacitly Muslim father and had been a committed Christian for decades.
But Obama also used our chat to make a case that his exposure to Islam, through his extended family and during his four years in Indonesia, made him unusually well suited to heal the rifts that had opened between the U.S. and the Muslim world over President George W. Bush's war on terror:
He elaborated on this argument elsewhere in our conversation, in comments that would foreshadow his administration's efforts on Muslim outreach:
In recent days, two major themes from my conversation with Obama - misunderstandings about his faith and his vision for improving U.S.-Muslim relations - have become the stuff of national headlines.
It was just days before Thursday's Pew poll revealed growing confusion about Obama's faith that he'd come out strongly for the rights of Muslims to build an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero.
With the imam behind Park51 - the name of the proposed center - touring the Middle East for the State Department, Obama appears unlikely to back down from his campaign to improve relations with Muslims.
Whether he will step up messaging around his religious faith to Christians, as he did in the days before South Carolina's caucuses, is still an open question.
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.