In a series of respected national polls this summer, great swaths of Republicans — often encompassing the majority — have shown themselves to be deeply worried about the prospect of Muslims gaining power in the U.S. and of President Obama’s perceived connections to the faith. This isn’t a fringy extreme or small but vocal minority. It’s huge portions of the party that just recently was defending its use of the filibuster by pointing out all the Democrats who blocked Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s and pooh-poohed the idea of racial insensitivity among tea partiers. And now, lots and lots of Republicans across the nation are on the leading edge of an anti-Muslim paranoia that some U.S. allies abroad believe will harm American relations with the moderate Muslim world.
Meet the new Republican establishment: worried about Muslims, and worried even more that Obama might be one of them.
The biggest news from the August 19 Pew poll of national attitudes toward Obama was the huge jump in the number of Americans who now think Obama is a Muslim. Nearly a fifth of the population made the incorrect assumption about Obama’s faith, a sizeable increase from the months after Obama was inaugurated. Among Republicans, the number was far higher. Thirty-one percent said Obama was a Muslim, and 39% said they didn’t know what religion Obama practices.
Only 27% made the right choice and said Obama is a Christian. Twenty-seven percent is usually the kind of number associated with a fringe element. So what’s the takeaway from Pew? Mainstream Republicans — the ones who make up the bulk of the party — at best doubt Obama’s faith and at worst are completely wrong about it.
And to be a Muslim is not a good thing in the eyes of the Republican mainstream. More than 60% of Republicans surveyed by CBS last month had an unfavorable view of the faith, compared with 25% of Democrats and 39% of the total sample.
So the takeaway is this: a large chunk of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, and more Republicans than not would say that being a Muslim is probably not a great character trait.
(Despite their trepidations about Obama’s faith, however, Republican respondents to the Pew poll said Obama isn’t using whatever religion they think he does have enough when making decisions. Forty percent of those surveyed said Obama relies “too little” on “religious beliefs to make policy decisions.” Go figure.)
Earlier this week came a new poll from Newsweek, suggesting what all that mistaken belief in Obama’s faith means for the majority of the GOP. A full 52% of Republicans surveyed by the magazine said Obama “probably” or “definitely sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.” Nearly 60% of GOP respondents said “Obama favors the interests of Muslim Americans over other groups of Americans.”
The numbers are very different from those of other voting blocs. Just 9% of Democrats said Obama has favored Muslims in his policies (that’s the kind of number we generally think of when we think of fringe) and the vast majority of independents (62%) think Obama has been even-handed when it comes to helping Muslims.
Of course, politicians of all stripes have been on the opposition side of the most visible debate about Islam at the moment, that being the planned Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. But it’s not a stretch to say Republicans are leading the fight against the project. And, as the polling shows, it’s no longer a question that the mainstream GOP is more worried about Islam than other political groups in America.