One of the most egregious lies floating around American political discourse is the claim that Barack Obama is not the Christian that he frequently and repeatedly professes to be, but is rather a Muslim. Last year, a Pew poll showed that more than 30% of registered Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and then, this week, the false claim was made by a large portion of a focus group conducted by Frank Luntz and broadcast on Fox News.
Initially, this mistake would seem to be easily remedied. After all, it is a simple question of fact, requiring no explanation or context. Barack Obama has never been a Muslim, nor has he ever claimed to be a Muslim. On the contrary, he has frequently professed his Christian faith and described his personal path to that faith. And, yet, the falsehood nevertheless persists.
It is possible that those making this false claim do so with the sincere conviction that it is true. This, in fact, seems to be the case for those in the Luntz group. Unless we can demonstrate that those making this claim are knowingly propagating a falsehood, we can’t say they are lying or being dishonest. At most, we can say that they should know better and are guilty of not knowing better.
So, the important question then–if we are interested in a more honest public discourse–becomes why this falsehood has come to be so widely believed and so widely propagated. In one sense, the answer is quite clear. As has been documented by Media Matters and many others, various Tea Partiers, Republicans, and conservative talk show hosts have propagated this lie or, in many circumstances, issued various forms on evasions, shoulder shrugs, non-denial denials, and so on. Most commonly, Republican leaders could be heard uttering various versions of Mitch McConnell’s pseudo-denial: “The President says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word.”
But none of this constitutes a sufficient explanation as to why this particular lie has proven so powerful. Lies are propagated every day, and most do not gain the traction that this one has. Really, it is not even the lie itself that is worrisome. (As Colin Powell said on Meet the Press, Barack Obama is not a Muslim, but if he were, so what?) What’s troubling is the larger narrative within which this lie is propagated and gains traction. That larger narrative is clearly intended to suggest that Barack Obama is in some way foreign, un-American, or “not one of us.” As Steve King (R-IA) put it in response to a constituent who was making the claim that Obama is a Muslim: “He does not have an American experience.”
Public discourse is often dishonest, because public figures benefit (or at least they think they do) by making it dishonest. Steve King knows the game he’s playing, and the political expedience of playing it. He may or may not worry about the long-term effects of cultivating ignorance and chauvinism in his constituents. Again, our only option is to change the political calculus of public figures by making the truth more politically expedient.
Late addition: Here is John Boehner trying to walk the fine line between being dishonest and capitalizing on the dishonesty of others. He accepts that the President is a Christian; he “takes him at his word,” using the latest term of political obfuscation. But, he adds, “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.”
Boehner is trying to avoid being called a birther himself, while, at the same time, capitalizing on the political advantage made available by the birthers and avoiding the costs associated with calling them out on their lies. And, so far, it seems to be working.