Why Do More People Think Obama Is a Muslim?

by John Sides on August 26, 2010 · 8 comments

in Public opinion

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Pew center poll that found that fewer Americans believe Obama is a Christian and more believe he is a Muslim or simply don’t know what his religion is. The question is: why have people’s beliefs changed?

One hypothesis proffered by Newsweek and Jack Shafer is that some Americans are just dumb. They believe in stuff like ghosts and astrology, so why not this about Obama?

That doesn’t get us very far. It seems hard to imagine that Americans suddenly got dumber between March 2009 and August 2010, when the Pew polls were conducted.

A second hypothesis comes from political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who notes that there have been numerous attempts by some media commentators and political leaders to insinuate that Obama is Muslim. He writes:

Rather than faulting the public for the weaknesses of human psychology, we should identify the elites who deceive citizens with false information and hold them accountable for their role in fostering this myth. It’s time to stop blaming the victims.

If Nyhan’s hypothesis is true, we would expect to see sharper changes over time among people who are, first, predisposed to believe bad things about Obama. This implicates Republicans, and, indeed, Pew found that Republicans registered the sharpest increase in the belief that Obama is Muslim. Second, among Republicans, we should see especially sharp changes among those who pay attention politics and the news, because these people who would be more likely to watch, read, or hear any commentators and leaders suggesting that Obama is Muslim.

Via a contact at Pew, I asked them for additional information from their March and August polls: the results broken down not only by party, but also by political attentiveness.[1] The best measure of attentiveness in their surveys was the respondent’s level of formal education, which is a plausible but imperfect proxy for attention to politics. Nevertheless, it’s what I had to use.

Here are the trends from the March 2009 to August 2010 polls in the perception that Obama is a Muslim. I divide the sample into Democrats and Republicans. Independents who lean towards a party are counted as partisans (see here for why), so this analysis includes about 90% of the sample. I then divide the sample into the education categories that Pew provided: those with a high school degree or less, those with some college education, and those with a college degree or more.


The growth in this perception among Democrats is small and is consistent across education levels: a 2-4 increase within each level. By contrast, the growth in this perception among Republicans is more notable among those with some college education (a 19-point increase) or a college degree (15 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (9 points). In other words, better educated Republicans have changed more than the less educated Republicans. This flies in the face of the “dumb Americans” idea and provides some support for Nyhan’s hypothesis. The people most likely to hear the “Obama is a Muslim” meme are the ones whose beliefs changed most dramatically in the past 17 months.

Below is the full set of results, including the percentages who said Christian, Muslim, or expressed no opinion. (Click to make it larger.) Again, this tells a similar story: larger changes among the better educated Republicans. For example, the decline in the percentage of Republicans who believe that Obama is a Christian is larger among those with some college (-31 points) or a college degree (-24 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (-11 points).


Obviously, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this analysis. It does not prove that some media personalities and political leaders are responsible for the increasing perception that Obama is a Muslim. But it points in that direction.

[Cross-posted at Ezra Klein’s blog]

fn1. I thank Jocelyn Kiley of Pew for providing additional data. Neither she nor the sponsors of the polls—the Pew Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life—bear any responsibility for my interpretation.


Trevor August 26, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Forgive the awkward framing, as I’m not a scientist, political or otherwise, but an even more speculative alternative hypothesis:

Many people, predominantly Republican, might see Christianity and human goodness as more or less coextensive. As opinion on the right becomes even more hostile towards Obama generally, respondents might be less likely to reason him a Christian based on limited knowledge, or at least less likely to pay him the compliment of Christianity. Is it possible that the more engaged of the Republican respondents have experienced a greater hostility in their general opinion toward Obama, and that this general opinion could account for the observed phenomenon?

Dan August 26, 2010 at 3:31 pm

To truly figure out what is going on here, I think we need two survey questions, not just one. Respondents need to be asked both what they think Obama claims his religion to be, and what they actually believe his religion to be. That’s the only way to differentiate between simple ignorance (“I don’t know his religion, but since I don’t like him, he must be a Muslim”) from active distrust (“Obama says he’s Christian but – he doesn’t go to church, is less friendly toward Israel, etc”). These two options seem quite different to me, both in terms of the potential causes (in particular the role of elites in opinion formulation) and in the political effects.

TheOneEyedMan August 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm

If all the groups were normalized to their initial level of belief on if he was a Muslim then it looks like the probability of believing that doubled for all the Republican groups plus the college educated Democrats.

Sebastian August 26, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Dan – well, the increase in people believing Obama is a Muslim – especially the increase in people with decent degrees of education – pretty clearly indicates that most “Obama is a muslim” people are driven by distrust and not simple ignorance.

Trevor: Yes, it is true that we don’t really know what people mean when they say that Obama is a Muslim. And you’re right, it could be the result of a satanic syllogism like

But none of that affects John’s analysis: We still have strong reason to believe that rw media consumption will make people more likely to say that Obama is, regardless of the precise meaning they attribute to that phrase.

Andrew August 26, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Nice graphs, dude.

Tom August 27, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Trevor got it right.

Jordan Ragusa August 27, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I think another hypothesis can shed some light on this phenomenon, particularity why one group internalizes the media’s message while another group does not. There is an excellent paper by Stephen Mockabee, Ken Wald and David Leege that explores inter-party variation in religiousness. They find that where the traditional “religious right” is defined by piety (e.g. traditional ANES measures such as frequency of church attendance) the “religious left” is defined by a communitarian view of Christianity (e.g. serving others). Thus, it may be that for Democrats and liberals, Obama is regarded as a Christian because of his progressive policies. For Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, there is skepticism of Obama’s Christianity because of his secular statements and views. The point I’m trying to make (I think) is that while the media effect is, as this blog correctly points out, driving variation over time in this phenomon, I think the more interesting effect (who internalizes the media’s message) may be explained by systematic variation across parties in the conceptualization of a “Christian.” In this way, it’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that drives Republicans’ internalization of the Obama-is-a-closet-Muslim meme (i.e. he doesn’t “seem” like most Christians I know, ergo he must be a Muslim). Of course, this effect is probably also due to the simple fact that many conservatives and Republicans just don’t like his policies (also a cognitive dissonance process).

These views are my interpretation of the Mockabee, Wald and Leege paper. I apologize if I have bastardized their work.

gbolaria September 3, 2010 at 1:34 am

I myself have a hard time understanding why Americans believe that Obama is Muslim. If he claims that he is a Christian, we should believe it. I mean, if we can easily believe what Sarah Palin and Glen Beck can say, why can’t we believe the man who is going to lead our country? Saying that Americans are dumb is the easy way out. There is obviously another reason as to why they are skeptical. It could be a dislike for the president, a little bit of racism, and a willingness to believe anything far fetched. I, for one, do not think this matters, and America has much larger things to worry for about. I’m sorry that we have nothing better than this

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