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Those who fervently believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim generally practice their furtive religion in obscure recesses of the Internet. Once in a while, they’ll surface in public to remind the news media that no amount of evidence can undermine their convictions.
In October 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a woman called Obama “an Arab.” McCain responded, incongruously enough, that Obama was, in fact, “a decent family man” and not an Arab at all. In an echo of this, a woman recently stood up at a town hall in Florida and began a question for Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum by asserting that the president “is an avowed Muslim.” The audience cheered, and Santorum didn’t bother to correct her.
Though they belong to a largely underground cult, the members of the Obama-is-Muslim congregation number as many as one third of all Republicans. A recent poll found that only 14 percent of Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi believe that the president is Christian.
These true believers treat their scraps of evidence like holy relics: the president’s middle name, his grandfather’s religion, a widely circulated photo of Obama in a turban. They occasionally traffic in outright fabrications: that he attended a radical madrasa in Indonesia as a child or that he put his hand on the Qur’an to be sworn in as president. An even more apocalyptic subset believes Obama to be nothing short of the anti-Christ.
By and large, however, this cult doesn’t attract mainstream support from the larger church of Obama haters. Indeed, these more orthodox faithful have carefully shifted the debate from Obama being Muslim to Obama acting Muslim. Evangelical pundits, presidential candidates and the right-wing media have all ramped up their attacks on the president for, as Baptist preacher Franklin Graham put it recently on MSNBC, “giving Islam a pass.”
The conservative mainstream still calls the president’s religious beliefs into question, but they stop just short of accusing him of apostasy and concealment. What they consider safe is the assertion that Obama is acting as if he were Muslim. In this way, Republican mandarins are cleverly channeling a conspiracy theory into a policy position.
There is a whiff of desperation in all this. After all, it’s not an easy time for the GOP. The economy shows modest signs of improvement. The Republican presidential candidates are still engaged in a fratricidal primary. By expanding counterterrorism operations and killing Osama bin Laden, the president has effectively removed national security from the list of Republican talking points.