A new poll finds that most Americans want presidential candidates to have strong religious beliefs — even if those beliefs are different from their own. As Gary Scott Smith, a history professor at Grove City College and author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush” told me:

That’s a longstanding trend in American culture. Americans want their presidents to have a substantial faith and they want to know that they are people who pray regularly for guidance, they expect them to use a certain amount of religious rhetoric in their speeches, particularly ones that deal with moral issues. The president’s often played the role of pastor in chief, whenever there’s a tragedy, we expect some type of spiritual assurances from the president, whether it’s dealing with a shooting, a space disaster, natural disaster, anything of that sort.”

Understandable… yet an inexplicable chunk of Americans can’t identify the religions of President Obama, Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann — candidates whose beliefs have made plenty of headlines! Check out my story on the poll here, and a follow-up in USA Today here.

I found several other things about this poll surprising, partly because it didn’t quite ask the right questions. How many more Americans would prefer a president with the same religion as them? How many would really vote more based on religious beliefs rather than on party lines?  Do most evangelicals really not know what Michele Bachmann’s beliefs are — or is it that they don’t know what she specifically believes, rather than that they don’t know she’s an evangelical Christian?

And as for the 18 percent who still think Obama is Muslim — the usual one out of five folks who are generally disagreeable, as in that dentist holding out in the chewing gum ads? — how many are people who know very well that he claims to be Christian (remember Pastor Jeremiah Wright?), but just think he’s a secret Muslim anyway? I suspect at least half.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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