Public Opinion and Obama’s Religion

by Joshua Tucker on August 19, 2010 · 17 comments

in Public opinion

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has a new report out with a fairly perplexing finding. The percentage of people who think President Obama is a Christian has declined sharply over the past year. In three studies from March 2008, October 2008, and March 2009, the percentage thinking he was a Christian stayed between 47-51%. Then, in the most recent study, it dropped to only 34%. The study was in the field from July 21-August 5th, so I think much of this predates the recent “Ground Zero Mosque” flap. Also, everything at follows is with the caveat that any one survey can always produce a result from the tails of a distribution, so we’ll want to see other surveys replicating this result before we can confidently conclude that public opinion in this regard has indeed shifted. But this is a blog, so let’s just posit for the moment that it indeed has shifted and continue with the discussion.

My question for those of you who study public opinion is the following: don’t we normally expect that factual knowledge about individuals increases over time as that person spends more time in the public eye? And it’s not like this issue wasn’t politicized from the start – opponents of Obama tried to make an issue of his religion during the campaign. So why would we expect fewer people now to know that he is a Christian?

Here’s the best answer I can come up with, and it’s a bit troubling. If we take a Bayesian perspective on the whole thing – people start with a prior, and then update as they get more information – here is the one stylized fact we actually know: Obama’s approval rating has dropped over the past year. So if we imagine that people start with a prior that Obama is a Christian, but it’s not particularly strong. Then time passes and they like him less – that’s the new piece of information. So then they have to update their belief as to whether Obama is a Christian, and lo and behold, fewer people think he’s a Christian. From this perspective, it suggests that – given enough initial uncertainty about a person’s religion – liking that person less makes one less likely to think he is a Christian. Interestingly, the drop in “Obama is a Christian” seems to be evenly split between thinking he is a Muslim and not knowing (other holds steady at 2%).

I’m open to other suggestions, explanations, etc. Also interested in whether readers have any other good examples of knowledge of factual information about a person declining as the person gets better known by the public?

{ 17 comments }

TheOneEyedMan August 19, 2010 at 3:55 pm

He’s as Muslim as Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish. That is, they both renounced a religion that does not recognize that renouncing. Understood that way, this would indicate learning on behalf of the public who could have learned that by being born to a Muslim father that Islam recognizes Obama as a Muslim.

I doubt that’s what’s going on, but the facts are more complicated than a simple assessment of where Obama prays would indicate.

Thomas J. Leeper August 19, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I think the Bayesian explanation makes sense. One could also consider it in terms of motivated skepticism. As an individual’s support for Obama decreases, they may be less likely to believe that he is Christian (and more likely to associate him with Islam); this assumes, however, that the individuals with changing attitudes tend to view Christianity positively and Islam negatively. I would be interested to see whether changes are strongest among Christians (who would be most motivated in this way).

That said, I think a more important point for discussion surrounds the role of media and polling firms in the maintenance of public misinformation. Unlike some fact-like beliefs, Obama’s religion is a fact (he is Christian and not Muslim). Has the media’s discussion of uncertainty surrounding his religion placed it on the national agenda when the public would not have been uncertain had it not been discussed? And, do pollsters have an obligation to inform individuals who provide incorrect answers to this (or any factual) question?

bw August 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I think your explanation makes some sense. The media continually asking about it probably is part of it as well. But you must also add that there are also a lot of folks out there repeatedly saying that he is a Muslim. I sometimes wonder whether they believe it or not, but it is being repeated over and over on twitter, facebook and I am sure in many other places.

Eric August 19, 2010 at 4:50 pm

It might be problematic to think of Obama’s religion as a simple factual matter. Political candidates in America have to claim to be Christian. I expect however that several (mostly Democratic) candidates are actually non-religious. The notion that this applies to Obama is consistent with the marked decrease in his church attendance since the campaign. A poll that asks what religion Obama claims to follow would provide a better test of the public’s grasp of the facts.

Regardless, the public has received fewer signals of Obama’s religiosity. I expect that this is a central factor in the downward shift in public opinion on this matter.

Wonks Anonymous August 19, 2010 at 5:31 pm

He never had to renounce Islam because he wasn’t raised religiously (can T.O.E provide evidence that Muslims consider him Muslim?). I think he’s an agnostic. He was explicit years back that the reason he started attending Wright’s church (or any church at all) was because it was necessary as a community organizer.

Benjamin Geer August 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I suspect that this issue is mostly nationalism in a religious disguise. In other words, for some significant number of respondents, who see America as a Christian nation and who don’t like Obama, he is “un-American” and therefore (by definition, as far as they’re concerned) “un-Christian”.

Josh R. August 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm

It might be problematic to think of Obama’s religion as a simple factual matter. Political candidates in America have to claim to be Christian.

Quick, someone tell Joe Lieberman, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, etc etc etc, they’ve been running their campaigns all wrong!

But more seriously: what I think you mean to say is that candidates have to claim to be religious. I think your overall point though is part of the issue.

As for Obama’s faith – he attended a Christian church and says that he is Christian – there really isn’t much more of an evidentiary threshold than that, is there? I mean, we could get into the business of trying to guess the mental motives of public figures even when they are belied by actual behavior, but that doesn’t seem a fruitful exercise.

My question for those of you who study public opinion is the following: don’t we normally expect that factual knowledge about individuals increases over time as that person spends more time in the public eye?

Perhaps, but does all such information increase? For instance, I bet that, over time, the number of Americans who can correctly identify the name of his wife and at least one of his daughters has improved. But that is because they are, by choice or not, public figures. As Eric points out, Obama has not used his religiosity to as great a degree as some other presidents have; and, a public campaign to spread disinformation on the matter continues to this day (Obama’s birth certificate, etc). So, it’s basically a one sided information stream. If it had been more two-sided then perhaps this would be more surprising.

It could also simply be that “Muslim” and “Don’t Know” are handy labels for “Other”. Adam Serwer argues in that vein:

Still, I think on some level, Hinderaker is right. Some conservatives see Obama as being different from them, and they deploy “Muslim” as an epithet to express their suspicion and anger toward him. I’m sure part of it also has to do with conservative elites reinforcing or at least winking at the notion that Obama is being deceptive about his religious beliefs and that describing someone as a “Muslim” is some kind of an insult. As the Pew poll notes, “Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing.” In a less politically correct time they probably would have used a different word.

Dan August 19, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories seemed to increase over time.

Scott McClurg August 19, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Not surprisingly, I see a bit of contagion going on here. There is a hardcore group of people for whom this has always been an issue. For them, this has always been on their agenda and as the election recedes into the background, those people they know who care about politics hear enough of this stuff to matter in the aggregate. So, a basic sort of contagion story (I’m sure James will come by soon enough and explain it better than this). But, I’d say you have some of the psychology of it right.

Mike August 20, 2010 at 5:30 am

I think part of the difference does hinge on definitions of “Christian” among respondents. Some surely think that Christianity means going to church or professing faith, in which case his factually is a Christian. But to others Christianity is a set of behaviours and attitudes, in which case someone who I think is a Christian today may show themselves to be UnChristian tomorrow.

That would be corroborated at least in part by the 11% that feel his own words and actions show him to be a Muslim (and presumably those citing “TV” would not only include commentators but also what they’ve seen him do on tv)

None of that explains the rise in perception that he is a Muslim, except perhaps the respondents didn’t want to say “Christian” and tuned out before “Atheist” and “Agnostic” were mentioned after the implausible “Hindu” and “Buddhist” etc. in the way the question was asked

If the options were just “Christian-Non Religious-Muslim” I wonder if that would cut into it? I imagine that if hatred is really as intense as it seems in some areas, people might feel bad feeling that way about a fellow Christian, and would thus not want to accept he is a fellow Christian.

It would be interesting to see if trends in the factual perceptions about Obama’s belonging to non-traditionally ‘american’ groups would follow the same trend (i.e. Gay, speaks French, etc)

Iceberg August 20, 2010 at 8:17 am

I was thinking about this in terms of memory research on false memories and on recall of negatively-worded sttements. People have heard that Obama is a Muslim, and the farther we get from the religious discussions of the campaign, the less likely it may be that people will remember the context in favor of the more shocking initial claim.

In this case, maybe there could also be a quesion order problem? I haven’t seen the order, but I know Pew also asked about performance and how much religion plays into presidential decisions. Depending on the order, maybe the Muslim response represented justification for some people rather than honest factual recall.

Anonymous Coward August 20, 2010 at 8:58 am

The simplest explanation is that they know full well that he isn’t a muslim and are just giving negative answers about a person they dislike to the interviewer or machine.

I expect that if you asked, a nontrivial proportion of conservative respondents would also tell you that he is a communist, or a Nazi, or a cannibal, or a witch. Not because they necessarily believe that he is factually a communist, etc, but just because those are good epithets.

Manoel Galdino August 20, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Maybe you should take a look at this artico:
http://www.springerlink.com/content/064786861r21m257/fulltext.html

Here the title and abstract of the paper:
When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions

An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

William Ockham August 20, 2010 at 10:49 pm

I am only perplexed that you find this perplexing. Any time there is a well-funded, well-organized effort to spread false information, the false information will spread. This is even more true when the lie is a “two-fer”. Just falsely accuse someone of belonging to a group you hate and you not only plant that idea, you also make it seem like being part of that group really is unsavory because even your opponent doesn’t want to be associated with it. Muslims are the target of this falsehood as surely as Obama is.

Warmongers have done this to pacifists forever. All they have to do is accuse someone who opposes a particular war of being a pacifist and they will soon have that person glorifying “good wars” and shunning real pacifists.

The people spreading this lie hate Muslims and Obama. They know that they can get others to repeat their lies by framing them as facts. Just look at that first comment on this post. I am fairly sure that the person who wrote that has no idea that it is complete nonsense created by anti-Muslim bigots to make it seem that Obama is dishonest and Muslim.

xo August 21, 2010 at 7:44 am

“Not because they necessarily believe that he is factually a communist, etc, but just because those are good epithets.”

This is what I thought, it is just a truculent answer. They are just being belligerent, and there is no cost or penalty for them answering the survey question in a hateful way, as they view ir.

drinkof August 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm

The science of polling is based on the notion that respondents give answers reflecting their actual beliefs. The prevalence of polling and, particularly reported results, has undermined that assumption. Many respondents answer strategically, in a way that will make the poll results move to their ‘side’. These numbers clearly reflect that, for reasons Anon coward and xo state, just extended to the published results for effect.

aretha4president August 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I would bet that if unemployment was significantly lower and the economy overall was doing better, the number of people who believe that President Obama is a Muslim would be lower. Seems to me that public opinion research tells us that the state of the economy and trust in government (which this belief seems to be connected to), are strongly correlated. But this is just one amateur’s take.

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