August 22nd, 2010
06:03 PM ET

My interview with Obama on his Christianity and the 'Muslim issue'

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:

Let me just sort of be as clear as possible in terms of what that the background is.

You know, I was raised basically by my mother, who came from a Christian background - small- town, white, Midwesterner. But, she was not particularly religious. My father, who I did not know - I spent a month of my life in his presence, otherwise he was a stranger to me - was raised in a household where his father had converted to Islam. But my father, for all practical purposes, was agnostic.

My mother remarried an Indonesian and we moved to Indonesia. But for two years I went to a Catholic school in Indonesia, and then for two years went to a secular school in Indonesia. The majority of children there were Muslim. But it wasn't a religious school.

So almost all the facts that have been presented in the scurrilous emails are wrong. And I've been a member of my church now for almost 20 years and have never been a person of the Muslim faith.

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:

...I absolutely believe that having lived in a country that was majority Muslim for a time and having distant relatives in Africa who are Muslim, that I'm less likely to demonize the Muslim faith and more likely to understand that they are ordinary folks who are trying to figure out how to live their lives and raise their kids and prosper just like anybody else. And I do think that that cultural understanding is something that could be extremely valuable.

He elaborated on this argument elsewhere in our conversation, in comments that would foreshadow his administration's efforts on Muslim outreach:

I do think that for the average Arab or Indonesian or Nigerian or Asian Muslim on the street that my familiarity with their culture would have an impact. I think that they would view America differently if I were president. Now, that is not just symbolic. That is something that could be used in a constructive way to open greater dialogue between the West and the Islamic world, and that ultimately could make us more safe.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Barack Obama • Houses of worship • Islam • Mosque • Muslim • Politics

soundoff (585 Responses)
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    September 9, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  2. Diane Pearce Votes for Obama Again

    Just wanted to say that I am working at a large Pharmaceutical corporation in Clayton NC and I endroce Barack Obama with all my heart. I encourage all my friends and colleagues to vote for Obama in 2012!! I LOVE YOU OBAMA

    March 25, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  3. Jane

    Some spoke of "RADICAL CHRISTIANS" IN THIS POST. II think most people would agree REV? WRIGHT IS A RADICAL CHRISTIAN......if that is possible....to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN AND RADICAL ! MR. OBAMA sat under this man for 20 years and did not detect that HE WAS A RADICAQL CHRISTIAN. A TRUE CHRISTIAN WOULD NOT SAY "GOD DAMN AMERICA" OR ANY COUNTRY FOR THAT MATTER as Jesus Christ THE SON OF GOD...and the FOUNDER OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH "came into the world not to condemn the world, but that THE WORLD through HIM might be saved" "For God so loved the world that HE gave HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON THAT whosoever believeth in HIM should not perish but have everlasting life" JESUS never said "GOD DAMN AMERICA OR ISRAEL OR (fill in the blank) HE said "Father forgive them....they know not what they do"! My personal belief is THAT MR. OBAMA hates AMERICA just like MR. WRIGHT does.
    President Obama bows to Arab leaders and would not even "pledge allegience" to the flag of THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! He has never "bowed" before any other Country's ruler.. He is a POLITICIAN and he has betryed AMERICA.

    September 3, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
    • 2+2=5

      Paranoia paranoia everybody's coming to get me.

      September 7, 2010 at 7:32 am |
    • 2+2=5

      Read a book about Vietnam if you can read, that may just explain his attitude a lot clearer. Makes sense why so many think he "hates" America because he cares lol. I love it. We did this last election are we really going to be children and do this again?

      September 7, 2010 at 7:34 am |
  4. Gil T

    I would be neither amazed nor alarmed were President Obama a Muslim. I am neither surprised nor shocked at the (pardon my French) crap Americans as well as my brothers and sisters in Christ can come up with malice intended. I prefer to take President Obama at his word he is a Christian.

    I mean no disrespect to the man nor do I say it with malice, but despite his eloquent speech it appears he does not have much more of a grasp of the tenets of faith than many of those same Christians acting as anything but Christian. My reason for stating this is primarily after viewing and listening to his messages on faith on YouTube during the then-senator Obama campaigned for the presidency. His generalizations and dilutions of Christians tenets of faith often reveal a lack of understanding. The endless barrage of weaving rapid-fire questions may intimidate some and may be taken as proof a person knows the things of which they speak, but that is not the case necessarily. He is not unique in that respect. It is certainly not a disgrace. Faith, like life, is for learning.

    My reason for stating much the same about many of his Christian (I won't speak for Americans in general) detractors is on the basis of comments posted in threads such as this one. They too do not seem to have much of a grasp of the tenets of their faith, but they can rail and rant. As unchristian as that is it is a American liberty.

    Incidentally, I do not buy President Obama's experience living in a Muslim culture in Indonesia necessarily qualifies or prepares him for his role as president. Indonesia Muslim culture does not necessarily equate with American Muslim culture.

    August 30, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  5. Anarimus

    Muslims – Al-Queda , Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood
    Christians – IRA, KKK, Army of God
    Atheists- Scientific discoveries and leaps in education

    Which is worse?

    August 29, 2010 at 6:39 am |
  6. Jason

    Chris, Obama grimaced during his Koran studies at the secular school he went to in Indonesia probably because it conflicted with what can best be described as his mother's Unitarian stance on religion. Schools in other nations allow religious studies for example in the Ukraine students have bible classes in public school. Obama attended a secular school and a Catholic school while there. Obama started his political career in the 1990's he joined the United Church of Christ in the 1980's and despite all this it doesn't matter because there are no religious requirements to hold office in America. I wonder what would be said if he was an avowed atheist?

    August 29, 2010 at 6:33 am |
  7. MG

    When A person says they believe there are other ways to GOD besides Jesus. They are not A Christian. Obama and Bush may be religious, ONLYChurch goers ate best. I can say I'm a car and sit in a garage all day, but that stll doesn't make me a car. Bush and Obama have stated this n interviews. This multi path to GOD view is not Christianity, it's religious

    August 29, 2010 at 1:30 am |
  8. Glass Plus

    Christianity is a belief system of hate & violence. Why subscribe to such a thing unless your intellect is defective?

    August 27, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  9. shabeer ahmed G.K

    people of america can you judge the work done by your president, but u can't judge what faith your president is following.I have always fell that america is place for equal opportunity not base on religion,cast color , but today your issues are making that you
    are also on the same foot what in India is happening, and one of the important ? is that a person will have a equal right to follow any religions of his choice in america. so stop judging his faith but do judging his work so its will help to u and the rest of the world

    August 26, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  10. Jim

    I don't care if he's a Muslim. The media does. They commission the polls and broadcast the results. I don't.

    August 25, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  11. J Rehnberg

    Hi all-
    Today is August 23. I have been crying a lot today and last night, also bi-polary happy, as I have had a rough spell. Regardless, might I remind everyone the time that has passed since this man, our president's words on this excellent subject were heard (by Joe shmo). Time is precious, but thank God it passes at its own steady pace. I find it profetic, not profitick. Tomorrow will dawn again new and God will be no different as He was yesterday or today.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:32 am |
  12. Kevin

    As an atheist, I think that our president is agnostic at least. How many children take on the faith of their parents? Both of his parents were agnostic/atheist.. Usually people who grew up atheist don't casually become Christian on their own.. Perhaps he knew it would be an issue, or pretends for his family's sake.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm |
    • Jochebed

      Agreed. Being a member of a church for 20 years does not make you a "committed Christian". Both sides are wrong. Obama is neither Muslim NOR Christian...he is what the vast majority of Americans are – vaguely religious while actually believing in nothing at all.

      September 1, 2010 at 6:22 am |
  13. B in FL

    All I have to say is that we have really become a nation of wimps since 9/11. I don't belileve that "religion" was the reason that 9/11 occurred, "religion" or the Muslim faith was used by Bin Laden to lure those you committed the murders. He was the puppet master and they were the puppets. One must not forget though that they were from Saudi Arabia (our supposed friends). Anyway, this argument about Pres. Obama was rehashed over & over during the Campaign and thankfully he still won the election fair & square (guess there really aren't as many wimps as the media makes us believe). Who cares what his religion is? I think it's great that he has been exposed in his lifetime to various religions because it has broadened his perspective and he sees the world as one planet with human beings, not one where one so called religious group is right and all other are wrong and therefore shouldn't even be sharing the same air.

    August 23, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
  14. mAKOM

    The Obama Administration and foreign governments have perverted the Constitution and the Laws of the United States of America in order to Destroy it. People if you don't wake up and start doing something; We can only blame ourselves for our NEW MARXIST/SOCIALIST SOCIETY WE ARE GOING TO HAVE. This is happening now. We must stop this.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm |
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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.