As the battle for the presidency heats up, Sen. Barack Obama's faith and family history have become fodder for political mudslinging, leaving voters to wonder what the truth is. In this FAQ, Beliefnet separates fact from fiction--from questions about his ties to Islam, to his stance on Israel and Palestine, to accusations that he attends a black supremacist church.
Click on one of the links below to go directly to that topic (or click here to ask your question and discuss Obama's faith):
- The Muslim Rumors
- Obama's Church and the Farrakhan Factor
- Obama’s Faith Life
- How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Have Reacted to Obama
The Muslim Rumors
Q: I got an email saying Barack Obama is Muslim. Is that true?
A: No. Barack Obama is Christian. He has been an active member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years. The title of Obama’s 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope" is taken from a sermon by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright—one of the nation’s best-known black preachers—who led Obama to the church in the 1980s.
Q. I’ve heard that Obama's father was Muslim and that Obama spent time in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country.
A: Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to a white mother from a Protestant Christian background—Obama later called her a “lonely witness for secular humanism”—and a black father from Kenya. His father was raised a Muslim, but Obama has said that “by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.” Obama’s parents divorced when he was two, and his father made his way back to Kenya; New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and others have reported that his father, also named Barack Hussein Obama, practiced polygamy, a local custom. He saw his son just once more before being killed in a car accident.
When he was six, Obama moved with his mother and her second husband, a Muslim whom Obama and his sister have described as not religious, to Indonesia. Obama lived there for four years, until 1971. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that Obama occasionally accompanied his stepfather to prayers at the local mosque, though Obama’s sister issued a statement that the family attended the mosque for “big communal events,” rather than every Friday. The Obama campaign responded to the story by saying that “Obama has never been a practicing Muslim.”
According to the L.A. Times, Obama spent the second and third grades in Indonesia in a Catholic school and third and fourth grades in a public school, which Obama has called a “Muslim school.” Because Obama was registered as a Muslim there—other students were apparently registered as Christians or Buddhists—he attended two hours of Qur’anic study a week. Reputable news organizations have shown that the rumor that Obama attended a radical Islamic madrassa is false.
Q: How did the false rumors start?
A: The rumors have spread largely via email, though it’s unclear who’s behind them. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.org, the claims stem from a January 2007 article in Insight Magazine, owned by the same company as the conservative Washington Times. “Are the American people ready,” the article asked, “for an elected president who was educated in a Madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage?”
Some Obama opponents have fanned the flames of the false Muslim rumor. A photo of Obama in traditional Somali garb that was posted in February on the Drudge Report website reportedly came from a Hillary Clinton campaign staffer, though Clinton and her top aides denied involvement. At a February John McCain rally in Cincinnati, the Arizona senator was introduced by a local radio host who repeatedly invoked Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama, declaring the need to “peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama.” McCain quickly apologized. But other Obama critics—including prominent Clinton backer and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey—have invoked his middle name.
Q: I've heard that Obama attends a black supremacist church.
A: Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the fifth largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. The church’s website describes it as “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian….We are an African people, and remain 'true to our native land,' the mother continent, the cradle of civilization."
The United Church of Christ’s general minister and president, Rev. John H. Thomas, has called emails that claim the church is racist, “absurd, mean-spirited and politically motivated.” He says the church is proud of its Afrocentric heritage: “This is no different from the hundreds of UCC churches from the German, Evangelical and Reformed stream that continue to own and celebrate their German heritage, insisting on annual sausage and sauerkraut dinners and singing Stille Nacht on Christmas Eve.” Prominent religious historian and University of Chicago professor Martin Marty, who is white, has said publicly that he and his wife have worshipped at the church and have always been made to feel welcome. “[F]or Trinity,” Marty has said, “Being ‘unashamedly black’ does not mean being ‘anti-white.’”
Q: But hasn’t Trinity United’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, supported Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan?
A: Trumpet Newsmagazine, which Wright founded 25 years ago as a church publication but which now exists separately--his daughters serve as publisher and executive editor, according to the Washington Post--last year gave its Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Trumpeter Award to Louis Farrakhan, who has been strongly criticized for his anti-Semitic statements. Wright, who praised Farrakhan in Trumpet for “his integrity and honesty,” also accompanied Farrakhan on a 1984 visit to Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi and said last year that when Obama’s enemies learned of the trip, “a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.” When the Washington Post reported on the Trumpet award this year, Obama said in a statement, “I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan.” He characterized the award as “not a decision with which I agree.”
Earlier this year, Farrakhan praised Obama in a public speech, calling him “the hope of the entire world.” The incident came up at a February debate, when Hillary Clinton remarked that she’d rejected support from an anti-Semitic group in New York. Obama noted that he’d denounced Farrakhan earlier but told Clinton: "I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce [Farrakhan]."
Obama’s Faith Life
Q: Do we know a lot about Obama’s faith life?
A: Yes. Obama has long been an active member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and frequently attends services there. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, officiated at his wedding, baptized both his daughters, and dedicated his house.
Obama came to the United Church of Christ after college. He’d taken a job as a community organizer for a group of Chicago churches and focused on tackling joblessness. Working with pastors and laypeople, Obama has written, “forced me to confront a dilemma that my mother never fully resolved in her own life: the fact that I had no community or shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs. The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me; they saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me remained removed…”
Drawn by the activist African-American church tradition, the longtime religious skeptic was “finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized.”
How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Have Reacted to Obama
Q: Have the false rumors hurt Obama with Christian voters?
A: Obama has received substantial support in the primaries from the Christian community, though largely among black churchgoers who are likely motivated more by race than religion. Polls suggest that Hillary Clinton has an edge among white churchgoers, but it’s unclear if the false Muslim rumors are at all responsible.
Q: How have Jews reacted to the false rumors, and what’s the truth about Obama’s stance on Israel and the Palestinians?
A: The false Muslim rumors, combined with Obama’s past sympathetic statements toward Palestinians, his support for negotiating with Iran, his ties to his pastor—a supporter of Louis Farrakhan—and the role of Israel critic Zbigniew Brzezinski as an informal Obama adviser—has sown some doubts about him in the Jewish community. Obama has met with Jewish activists to address the concerns. During the campaign, Obama has frequently voiced support for Israel, saying in a February debate that the Jewish state’s security is “sacrosanct.” In January, a letter signed by leaders of nine prominent Jewish organizations condemned emails falsely claiming Obama to be Muslim. Obama won Jewish votes in primaries in Connecticut, California, and elsewhere, while Hillary Clinton has won among Jews in New York, New Jersey, and a handful of other states.
Q: How have Muslims reacted to the false rumors about Obama being Muslim?
A: Some Muslims have criticized Obama for calling false rumors about him “scurrilous” and for declining to defend Muslims as he combats the rumors. What’s so bad about being Muslim, they ask? There is no good polling on which presidential candidate Muslims are supporting in 2008. But with Muslims moving from the Republican to the Democratic column in the years since George W. Bush’s war on terror, some Muslim leaders believe that Obama is beating Clinton among Muslims, largely because of his background and his outspoken support for stepped-up diplomacy with Muslim nations.
Q: Were a Muslim to run for president, would Americans be less likely to vote for him or her?
A: Polls suggest that this is the case. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 45 percent of Americans expressed reluctance over supporting a Muslim candidate. By comparison, the poll found that 25 percent of Americans had reservations about supporting a Mormon.
Q: Was Obama sworn into the Senate using a Qur’an?
A: No. Obama was sworn into the Senate by Vice President Dick Cheney using Obama’s own Bible. This rumor confuses Obama with Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first and only Muslim member of Congress, who was sworn in using a Qur’an.
To ask your questions about Obama or to discuss his faith, click here.