August 19th, 2010
01:02 AM ET

Only a third of Americans say Obama is Christian; almost one in five say he's Muslim

President Obama speaking in a Washington church earlier this year.

A substantial and growing chunk of the country believes that President Obama, a self-described Christian, is Muslim, while only about a third of Americans are able to correctly identify his religion, according to a survey released Thursday.

Nearly one in five Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, up from around one in 10 Americans who said he was Muslim last year, according to the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

While most of those who think Obama is Muslim are Republicans, the number of independents who believe he is Muslim has expanded significantly, from 10 percent last year to 18 percent now.

The number of Americans who express uncertainly about the president's religion, meanwhile, is much larger and has also grown, including among Obama's political base. For instance, fewer than half of Democrats and African-Americans now say that Obama is Christian.

In March 2009, 36 percent of African-Americans said they didn't know what religion Obama practices. Now, 46 percent of African-Americans say they don't know.

"You would think the longer the person is in the White House, the more the 'don't knows' would decline," said Alan Cooperman, the Pew Forum's associate director for research. "But the 'don't knows' are higher now than when he came to office."

The survey was conducted in late July and early August.

Though Obama advertised his Christianity on the campaign trail and early in his administration - including distributing pamphlets about his religion during the 2008 presidential race and inviting the Rev. Rick Warren to his inauguration - he has been less public about his faith since then.

Despite intense media speculation about which Washington church Obama would join, for example, the White House has yet to announce that he has joined any.

"We had eight years of George W. Bush, who was very public about religious debates and high profile about religious practice and that's followed by Barack Obama, who is much lower profile about religious beliefs and practices," Cooperman said.

"It could be that in the relative vacuum of information coming out of the White House about his personal religious beliefs, others step in to feel the breach," Cooperman said. "It allows others who say that 'Oh, he's really this or that' to gain some currency."

Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said Wednesday night that Obama has "expanded in a historic way the engagement of persons of faith by this administration."

The president has given six speeches on faith issues, DuBois said, and has launched the first-ever White House advisory council for the faith-based office, composed largely of religious leaders.

"A lot of these facts are not necessarily what the public and the media are focused on everyday, which is not surprising given the issues we're facing as a country: reforming health care, bringing the troops home from Iraq and the economic recovery," DuBois said in an interview.

False rumors that Obama is Muslim have dogged him since he declared his candidacy for president in 2007. Pew conducted its survey before the president's comments last week about the right of Muslims to proceed with a controversial proposal for an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida evangelical who is in frequent touch with Obama, says their relationship belies the findings of the new survey.

"He is very definitely a Christian, but a lot of the things he does to work on spiritual formation are simply not public," Hunter said.

Hunter said that he is in weekly contact with the president about his spiritual life, including writing devotionals for Obama and praying with him via telephone. Hunter said he received a call from Air Force One on the president's 49th birthday earlier this month.

"Several of us (Christian pastors) prayed with him over the phone," Hunter said. "We talked about his life and what he wanted us to pray for and it was at his initiative."

Earlier, when the president learned Hunter's grandchild had been stricken with cancer, the Florida preacher said he received a call from the White House.

"He called and told me that he and Michelle were praying for us," Hunter said, referring to the first lady. "I explained that this was an aggressive form of cancer and he pastored me, saying the Lord would be with us through this and that we should trust in God. It was a real reversal of roles."

But Hunter said the administration may want to reconsider its messaging on religion in light of the Pew poll.

"It may be time for them (the White House) to be a little more public about what the president does to be an active Christian," he said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Christianity • Politics • Polls

soundoff (1,651 Responses)
  1. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Why is this surprising? Right on these boards we have Exhibit A: Keith the Pipe-fvcker, who believes that Obama is Muslim and that there are conspiracies beyond all imagining.

    Idiots like him abound.

    July 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  2. Mama J

    I realize this is old, but I just ran across it and found it interesting.

    So, let's see. Fully one third (33%) of Americans think that Obama is Christian. Less than one fifth (less than 20%) think he's Muslim. So those that think he's Christian outweigh those who think he's Muslim by more than 13%.

    That's not even counting the 47% who apparently very reasonably don't know and/or don't care.

    I find the exact wording of the headline to be the most interesting thing about all of this. Apparently the author thinks that his readers' intelligence does not include very basic math and reasoning. Rabblerousing at its finest! (Well, not really, if it's that obvious, clearly it's not a very fine job of it, even if it's effective.)

    November 26, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
    • Calvin

      @Mama J
      I fail to see the point you are trying to make.
      The main point of this article is the change (for the worse) in public knowledge regarding Obama's religious affiliation. The change, not so much the absolute number.
      I agree, to a point, that the headline can be more concise. Something like "Despite years in office, more Americans erroneously believe Obama is Muslim"

      August 2, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  3. Gene

    One in five sounds about right. Statistics estimate that anywhere from 1-in-5 to 1-in-7 Americans are functionally illiterate. So what happens when you're too stupid to read? You let others manipulate your thinking by telling you what to think. The next time the teabaggers have an event, just look at the freak show and you'll see why.

    September 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm |

    Is Barrack Hussein Obama going to be baptized in a Christian Church?

    September 19, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
    • Kate


      On the assumption that it would be needed again (which it isn't), even if he did people like you would still turn around and declare it invalid because it was either not enough (sprinkled), too much (drowned), the wrong sort of holy water (river vs swimming pool vs font), the color was an indication he's really kenyan (muddy river water vs good old southern chlorinated water), the qualifications of the preacher (the guy is a mormon, or a catholic, or a baptist), whether or not he revealed in some raputurous babbling that 9/11 was an inside job, whether or not he was qualified to be baptized in an american church (without a different birth certificate), if his wife was present (or in spain), if he was callously exploiting his kids (having them be present) or if their dog peed on the bushes.

      And that's just the ones I can think of on one mug of coffee (which obviously makes me a liberal because it's not tea, and you ain't invited to the party)

      Just notin'

      September 21, 2010 at 11:12 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.