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America’s Religious Veneer

The number of Americans who believe that President Obama is a Muslim hovers at roughly sixty million, around twenty percent of the population. Others, who may not have signed on to that belief, are continually disturbed about the president’s infrequent church attendance. Although they themselves may not attend weekly services, they apparently expect that their leader will, that our president will wear his religion on his sleeve. For decades, one of the safety nets for presidents was the evangelist Billy Graham. When things got tough, Presidents invited Graham to the White House for a friendly photo op. Alas, Graham is old and not in good health these days and his son, Franklin, doesn’t yet have his clout. So what’s a president to do?

Maybe the best thing would simply be nothing—say as little as possible. Better yet, the media ought to stop hounding Obama about his religious beliefs. They are his alone—a private matter–and ought to be of no concern to anyone else. George Bush frequently mentioned talking to God, and look what that got us: endless wars.

The problem is that Americans get their religion from the same place they get everything else—from their ignorance and their gullibility. It doesn’t help that anyone can put up a shingle, claiming to be a pastor. Think of the three fanatical pastors most recently in the news. First there’s Fred Phelps, an “independent Baptist,” of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps is a disbarred lawyer with thirteen children–proof, possibly, that he himself is not gay. But that hasn’t stopped him from spouting some of the most heinous remarks about gays in recent times. Where does he do that? At the funerals of American soldiers—to hell with the grief of the mourners. His religion does not advocate human decency.

Then there’s Terry Jones, a would-be Koran burner, and the “pastor” of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Mercifully, Jones’ flock of followers is barely larger than Phelps’—a few dozen parishioners at most. But that hasn’t limited his damage internationally—including angry demonstrations in Kashmir, where thirteen people died.

Are the larger religious organizations any better? Consider Pastor Eddie Long, Bishop of the New Birth Missionary mega church in DeKalb County, Georgia. Long recently got caught with his pants down—not literally, but with his revealing body poses—when several young men said they have had sexual relationships with him. This from the outspoken anti-homosexuality minister, who speaks of “muscular Christianity.” There’s also the huge Winners Church in West Palm, Florida. The organization’s website refers to its faith as “The Church of Champions…Where Winning Is a Lifestyle.” It also describes the church as “a private company,” suggesting a business model rather than a religious one. At least, this is truth in advertising.

It’s no surprise that a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life determined that Americans know little about religion. In that poll, according to ABC News, “More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation.” It gets worse. Of the survey of 32 questions about the world’s religions, most respondents answered only half correctly—even the questions about their own faith (what is the name of the first book of the Bible, for example?) Out of the 32 questions, atheists and agnostics scored the highest (21 correct answers), followed by Jews and Mormons (20 correct). Overall, protestants got 16; Catholics, 15.

For me, the Pew Poll wasn’t nearly as revealing as the one taken by Public Policy Polling this past week in New York. In that poll, of the Republican voters questioned, only 4% were in favor of building an Islamic center near Ground Zero. But 21% had no trouble supporting the construction of a strip joint in the same location.

Fortunately, there’s good news on the religious front. Also this past week, in England, Druidry became an official religion, recognized by the British government. Soon there’ll be an invasion of Druids in the United States–competition from a legitimate faith.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.