August 27, 2010
Religion and Politics: What Obama could learn from Benjamin DisraeliBy Allen Z. Hertz
Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli served a total of seven years as British Prime Minister, during two terms between 1868 and 1880. As a child, Disraeli received Jewish instruction, and his family belonged to a synagogue. Though he converted to the Anglican Church at the age of thirteen, Disraeli's Jewish religious and ethnic origins were both well-known and frequently discussed throughout his long political career, during which he was proudly philo-Semitic.
By contrast, a new Pew Research Center poll shows that a growing percentage of Americans (43%) do not know President Obama's current religion, with another 18% now saying that he is Muslim. This signals a potential political problem because public opinion polling tells us that most Americans expect their politicians to have firm religious beliefs and are genuinely interested in their leaders' religious affiliations.
Though explicitly philo-Muslim in policy, President Obama has repeatedly affirmed his own Christianity, which he adopted in his late twenties in 1988, when he joined the United Church of Christ. However, there remains the relevant question of his religious evolution before that time, including during his childhood. In this regard, his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech offered: "I'm a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims."
Could it be that growing uncertainty about President Obama's present religious affiliation is connected with his religious history from childhood, just as there was always lively interest in Disraeli's Jewish childhood?
Theologically, Islam regards all children to be born Muslim and to remain such until adults teach them otherwise. President Obama was probably once Muslim also because:
(1) his paternal grandfather was Muslim;
(2) his father -- though ideologically Marxist -- was born and buried a Muslim;
(3) his parents chose to give him two distinctly Muslim names, "Barack" and "Hussein";
(4) his Indonesian stepfather was also Muslim;
(5) Indonesian contemporaries recall that Obama attended Muslim religious services in mosques;
(6) Obama himself has written that as a child he enunciated the shahadah -- the key profession of Muslim faith;
(7) documents show that he was registered as "Muslim" at Indonesian schools;
(8) Obama himself says that he then studied the Koran;
(9) an Indonesian teacher remembers that Obama was also learning Koranic recitation in Arabic;
(10) Obama's Indonesian playmates have said that during his childhood in Indonesia, they then believed him to be Muslim; and
(11) reflecting on her childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, Obama's half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng in 2007 told the New York Times, "My whole family was Muslim."
Though in 2008 the Obama campaign specifically denied that he had ever been Muslim, the president might perhaps be wiser to follow Disraeli's example in speaking clearly about his childhood religion in a way that is intelligible to Americans, who from childhood are generally people of faith.
Though a member of the Anglican Church, Disraeli repeatedly affirmed that there was nothing wrong in being Jewish or having converted from Judaism to Christianity. In the same way, there is nothing wrong in being Muslim or having been Muslim. However, suspicion that a previous religion may have been glossed over for political advantage creates an impression that is both awkward and unbecoming. Could it be that this is a factor contributing to the growing confusion about President Obama's particular religious faith today?
Though a minority would strongly disagree, a broad range of public opinion polling about the role of religion in USA public life suggests that most Americans would likely regard President Obama's current religion and religious history to be matters of legitimate public interest.
Allen Z. Hertz was formerly senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. Earlier, he taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto, and Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in European and Ottoman history from Columbia University and international law degrees from Cambridge and the University of Toronto.