Like the really dumb debate about his birthplace, the President's religion remains an issue that just won't seem to go away. According to the Pew Research Center, 18% of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim, only 34% claim to know that he is a Christian, and 43% say they don't know his religion.
The President's birthplace, of course, is a confirmable fact. That my not matter much to those to whom facts don't matter. There are always extremists at both ends of the spectrum, for whom ideology inevitably trumps facts - whether it's who killed JFK or whether the world's climate is really changing or whatever. When I was a grad student, I remember reading and quoting (probably approvingly in some particularly benighted moment) the claim that there is something "conservative" about the very notion of a "fact." There are conservatives and there are conservatives, of course, but one of the more charming characteristics of traditional conservatives (not the radical and destabilizing movements that pass for "conservative" in contemporary politics) is a certain respect for facts - for the inherent givens of human nature, history, etc.
But I digress - back to President Obama's religion! That the President did join a church at a certain point in his life is - like being born in Hawaii - an historical fact. What that may actually mean in terms of his belief system today is, of course, another matter, more open to legitimate interpretation. Therein may lie the problem, inasmuch as the President does not so frequently display the predictable external markers of Christian identification that Americans have been accustomed to. expect in their presidents. That may be unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, but still it is quite a leap - a most unjustified leap - to jump from that observation to refusing to accept the President's repeated assertion that he is a believing Christian.
And now along comes Bill Maher - a self-appointed anti-religious zealot - who has declared that he too does not believe President Obama is telling the truth about his religion. As Brent Decker of The Washington Times put it, "With friends like Mr. Maher, Mr. Obama doen't need enemies."
I don't know how much of a "friend" of Obama, Bill Maher actually is. I'm guessing he likes Obama. Perhaps he's the sort of ideologue who expects that other smart people really agree with him, because what else would really smart people believe? I really just don't know. (But I guess Maher would really like it for the President to be in reality a skeptical, secular humanist - like himself).
Apparently, the issue came up in the context of Maher's also not believing that the President is politically a centrist. Being a "centrist" is certainly an even more malleable identity than being a Christian. So there is certainly room for legitimate debate about what that means and whether it is a reasonable description of the President's policies. Extremists at the other end from Maher routinely imply that the President is some sort of "socialist" seeking to impose a "socialist" (or at least a "European") style agenda on America. Intentionally or not, Maher oddly seems to be adding more plausibility to that interpretation.
(My own view, for what little it may be worth, is that the President may perhaps be more culturally liberal personally than any of his predecessors, but that his political ideology is indeed on the whole centrist.)
But I'm digressing again!
In the end, it was left to my one-time Princeton classmate Cornel West to defend the President's Christian self-identification, which he did very effectively.
Way to go, Cornel!