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Will Americans accept Islam?

The president has tried to tackle this issue head-on, even as polling reveals a wary public.

By Stephen Prothero

Earlier this month, at a White House dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, President Obama said some things that conservative talk show hosts love to rewind and repeat. In the presence of diplomats, business executives and members of Congress, Obama described Islam as "part of America" and hailed "its commitment to justice and progress." He then called Islam "a great religion."

His fellow Americans are not so sure.

According to a new Pew survey of American attitudes toward Islam, a strong majority (58%) of Americans now acknowledge that there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims. Hispanics, blacks and atheists fare better. Only gay men and lesbians are seen as worse off than Muslims, with 64% of Americans saying there is a lot of discrimination against them.

Raw Associated Press video of President Obama speaking during the Iftar dinner commemorating Ramadan.


Unfortunately, Americans don't seem either willing or able to do much about this bigotry. According to Pew, over half of Americans admit that they do not know a Muslim, and when asked two simple questions about Islam the name Muslims use for God (Allah) and the Islamic holy book (the Quran) only 41% got both right. If America's future with Islamic countries hangs in part on U.S. citizens and their elected representatives having some basic Islamic literacy, that future is hanging by a thread.

Who are we?

One of the questions Americans have asked themselves since the Revolution concerns the religious character of the United States. Is this a secular nation, as our godless Constitution suggests? Or is it, as our citizens' religious preferences intimate, a Christian country? During much of the 19th century, the U.S. was widely perceived as a Protestant nation. After World War II, as the Cold War haunted us with the specter of atheistic communism, Jews and Catholics were welcomed into the American fold. Immediately after 9/11, this Judeo-Christian past seemed to be yielding to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic future. Today most of that Abrahamic talk has gone the way of the Latin Mass.

This new Pew poll shows that Catholics and Jews are viewed favorably among roughly two-thirds of the American public a figure roughly equivalent to the favorable ratings enjoyed on Inauguration Day by Michelle Obama. So Catholics and Jews continue to sit comfortably alongside Protestants under America's sacred canopy. Muslims, however, are left out in the cold. Their favorable rating of only 38% (roughly President Bush's marks upon Obama's inauguration) is lower than at any time since 9/11.

With the health care showdown upon us, and multiple wars in the Middle East, President Obama has a lot on his plate. Even so, he seems determined to do something about religion, too, or more precisely about religious tolerance.

Democrats have traditionally bent over backward to avoid committing religion in public. During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy felt compelled to promise that he would never let his private Catholic faith affect any public decision he might make as president. And when John Kerry bid for the Oval Office in 2004, he seemed about as comfortable discussing his Catholicism as he would have been selling Tupperware products door-to-door.

After Bush's victory over Kerry in 2004, however, the Democrats got religion. While Hillary Clinton yoked her views on immigration reform to the Good Samaritan story, Obama made friends with megachurch pastors. In his inaugural address, he spoke of the United States as neither a secular nor a Christian country but a multireligious "nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers."

Eboo Patel, executive director of Interfaith Youth Corps and a practicing Muslim, was at the White House Ramadan dinner. He was gratified to hear Obama describe Islam as a "great religion," but Bush did the same, so in his view that is not the story. The story is that the event was not restricted to Muslims. High-ranking members of the Obama administration, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder, were on the guest list. So were megachurch pastor Joel Hunter and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. "It was great that Saperstein and Hunter were there," Patel told me. "A roomful of Muslims in the White House is an interest group. But a roomful of Muslims, Jews and Christians that's America."

The pastor in chief

President Bush was widely criticized for wearing his faith on his sleeve. But even more than Bush, in fact more than any president in recent memory, Obama has used the bully pulpit as a pulpit. In his eulogy for Ted Kennedy, where he spoke of love and faith and God, Obama looked more like America's pastor in chief than its commander in chief. In major addresses to Catholics in May and to Muslims in June, he proved that all religion is local, too, speaking of Catholic social thought at the University of Notre Dame and of the Quran in Egypt. On all these occasions, he preached a gospel of tolerance rooted not in wishy-washy liberalism but in neo-orthodox theology the sort of faith that "admits doubt" and in the process "humble(s) us" before our Maker.

This new Pew survey gathered much useful data, but it wasted time and money in determining that roughly two-thirds of Americans see Islam as either "somewhat different" or "very different" from their own religions. The question isn't whether Christianity and Islam are similar or different. The question is whether religious (and non-religious) people can find common ground. On this point, Patel is unequivocal. "Religions are different," he says, "but they have shared values." The challenge is "to identify shared values such as mercy, compassion and service," and then to advance from there to shared projects.

In his public pronouncements on religion, Obama has repeatedly invoked the Golden Rule as common ground. But like Patel, he does not pretend that all religions are the same, and like his predecessor he does not shy away from speaking as a "committed Christian." At Notre Dame, he denounced "outworn prejudice" as "rooted in original sin." In Obama's view, there is not just something wrong but something un-Christian about discrimination against Muslims, or against any other religious (or non-religious) group.


Unfortunately, this study did not ask Americans what they think of anti-Muslim discrimination. Do those who see discrimination against Muslims want it to end? Or would they like to see more of it? According to Patel, that is the $1 million question "not who faces bigotry, but who would stand up against it."

Stephen Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know And Doesn't.

(Illustration by Keith Simmons, USA TODAY)

Posted at 12:16 AM/ET, September 21, 2009 in Forum commentary, On religion column, Religion - Forum | Permalink

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