cross-posted to goodCRIMETHINK

Faith in Public Life has this out:

FOFPL Steve Benen brought my attention to a new poll (PDF) showing that the rumors about Barack Obama being a Muslim are having their intended effect. Thirteen percent of respondents to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released today said Obama is a Muslim, up from eight percent who held that belief in March.

When I first saw this blog post, I was all fired up and ready to go! I had my ammo ready to launch at ignorant voters and bigoted Republicans and cynical Clintons, but a closer look at the data reveals something more nuanced.

and the raw numbers

First, the margin of error is +/- 3 percent.

Second, the number that moved the most wasn’t those thinking Obama was a Muslim, but those declaring they weren’t sure what his religion was. This number collapsed from 70 percent to 44 percent. The bulk of folks just don’t know about Obama’s religion.

Within this 26 point swing, 19 percent conclude correctly that he’s a Protestant, and 5 percent more now think he’s a Muslim. It’s not clear from this survey if those who think he’s Muslim assume that to be a problem, but other surveys have found that half of Americans would be “less likely” to vote for a Muslim as president. (yes, that links to AlJazeera with the article from the Nation)

What’s disappointing is the slow creep of these numbers. Of course most Americans didn’t know about Obama’s religion. He wasn’t a truly leading candidate until late February, and most folks are busy, tired, heavily distracted and poorly informed by mass media.

As the number of people who “know” what his religion is grew, is it a problem that 20 percent of these (5 points out of the 26 point swing) got it wrong? And who’s to blame?

I expect exploitation and bigotry from a subset of Republicans via email smears and shameless attack groups. Many of them have nothing better to do and lack the faith in their own ideas to do anything but play off fears of other faiths.

I did not expect and will not accept it from my so-called friends in the Democratic Party. Shame on you, Hillary, for leaving any ounce of doubt about Obama’s religion and for failing to “reject and denounce” such a smear against Islam in the first place.

We are in a crucial period in this election season. As this survey shows, many people still don’t know about Obama, and that ignorance will be exploited actively and passively by foe and friend. Let’s set the bar of discourse higher and stop playing to the fears of- and expecting so little from the American voter.

Updated 3:55pm ET.

First a super quick note: I don’t think it’s an inherent smear to label someone a Muslim, but when the populace sees it as a risk and something to be avoided, it is a smear on multiple levels. It insults Islam and it insults the candidate who is not Muslim. That’s all on that.

Now my real reason for updating…

The best part of posting a blog just before takeoff is that you get hours to let it sit in your head. Something was unfinished about my analysis, something important left unsaid. It came to me when a friend saw the 80 percent “newly certain” group believing Obama was Protestant. She saw this as hopeful. 80 percent is a clear majority. I see it as dangerously inconclusive.

Here’s the danger.

70 percent of people in December 2007 had no idea what Obama’s religion was.

Since then 26 percent have come to a conclusion, and 20 percent of those have come to the wrong conclusion. This could be good, or it could be bad. We need to wait for the next version of the survey to come out.

But here’s the real rub, and the reason I’m worried. It works in politics to try to define your opponent, and what we have is 44 percent of the electorate with no clear definition of Obama’s religion (and for many, this means his loyalty, patriotism, etc). He is very vulnerable to being defined by these underhanded tactics, and there’s no way I can rest easy on this point.

After all, John Kerry and Max Cleland both had strong public definitions as veterans and war heroes, but somehow they were both defined as cowards, traitors and unpatriotic exaggerators. This happened to men about whom there was little to no uncertainty! Imagine what a cynical manipulative mind could do with the remaining half of Americans still very open to Obama on this religion question.

This is why Hillary’s failure to categorically set the record straight about Obama’s religion is so dangerous. She, more than almost anyone, knows how the GOP especially loves to use this define-your-opponent tactic, and she’s acted in a way that not only says she’s fine with it, but part of it.

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