Obama’s Islam, polls and belief as personal expression

A Tea Party demonstrator embraces Sarah Palin's made-up Twitter word, for reasons that are probably semiotically complex.

Smick sent me an interesting email yesterday about anonymous polls—particularly this one, which holds that 46% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim. When you think about it, that number is absurdly high. The notion that almost half of the Republican Party genuinely believes that the President of the United States secretly practices a religion—different from the one practiced at the church he attended in Chicago for years, which posed his most serious PR problem during the 2008 campaign—and that he has successfully hidden his practice from the most aggressive media in history, despite having two young children who will say anything once you get a couple juice boxes in them, is perhaps too fantastic to accept. Certainly, there are wingnuts. But half the party? That’s more agreement than could initially be mustered on the issue of Mitt Romney versus Mike Huckabee.

As Josh Gerstein at Politico points out, the number is flexible. The 46% comes from a Time poll; a subsequent Pew Poll put the number at a substantially-lower-but-still-crazy 31%. Gerstein gives us our first clue that we’re not dealing with the classic definitions of “believe” and “is” when he points out that the Time poll was conducted during the height of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.* There was also a significant difference in phrasing. Pew put the question thus:

Now, thinking about Barack Obama’s religious beliefs … Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else?

Whereas Time was a little more clear about its intentions:

Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?

Let us consider the phrase “personally believe” and how it might differ from “believe.” The introduction of the concept “personal” invites the respondent not just to say what he thinks is true—”Do you believe that the refrigerator is on fire?”—but to tell us something about himself. Consciously or otherwise, we have entered the realm of belief as expression.

If that seems like a stretch to you, consider that popular phrase in American politics, “I believe in free enterprise.” Since almost no one comes out publicly against free enterprise, the statement has become code for a much more specific set of ideas: deregulation, low corporate taxes, reduction of the public sector. When a candidate says he supports free enterprise, the message is almost entirely separate from the denotative meaning of the words he is saying. It’s a culturally established cipher.

So, too, does “I personally believe Barack Obama is a Muslim” communicate more than your assessment of the President’s religious beliefs. The term “Muslim” bears roughly as much relation to the religion of Islam in this context as “socialist” bears to communal ownership of the means of production on the Glenn Beck Program. Saying that you think Obama is a Muslim is a way of aligning yourself with a particular worldview—one that regards the President as fundamentally alienated from mainstream American views, soft on terrorism, and opposed to your particular segment of Americans.

That worldview remains almost medically stupid, of course. It’s no coincidence that the shorthand conservative America has adopted to express its opposition to our first black President evokes the rhetoric of xenophobia, or that it has nothing to do with policies, evidence, arguments or anything else that requires you to connect what you say to real events or a chain of reason. “The President is a Muslim” is the politics of very dumb people.

It’s a politics that has been increasingly adopted with increasing sophistication by conservatives, though. How else to explain Time’s 46%, or even Pew’s 31%? I suppose it’s possible that one third to one half of the Republican Party consists of very dumb people, but it’s too depressing to contemplate.

It seems more likely that the old guard and the newly-activated talk radio crowd have met somewhere in the middle, where “Barack Obama is a Muslim” has become to movement conservatism what “no future” was to punk rock. It’s an expression of political nihilism particularly suited to the semi-performative context of a public opinion poll: a way to shock the questioner with your lack of faith in government, your rage at Obama, and your winking insistence that you know a real American when you see one.

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  1. Twenty years from now a real Muslim is going to run and get elected due to his association with the rosy hindsight on Obama’s presidency.

    Or maybe this hypothetical candidate will lose to a bunch of voters polling “I believe he is Muslim, not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

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