(CNN: Belief Blog) 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.