This I Believe

It’s quickly mushroomed into the summer’s hottest data point: A boatload of Americans believe Barack Obama’s a Muslim.

Except that, maybe, they don’t. Consider this instead: They’re just willing to say it.

This not-so-subtle difference is useful in understanding public opinion and its measurement. Yet the punditry and pronouncements that have followed the Obama/Muslim numbers mainly have missed the point, falling instead into the trap of literalism. They say, so they believe.

Not necessarily so. People in fact may voice an attitude not as an affirmed belief – a statement of perceived factual reality – but rather as what my colleagues and I have taken to calling “expressed belief” – a statement intended to send a message, not claim a known fact.

It’s human nature. Some people who strongly oppose a person or proposition will take virtually any opportunity to express that antipathy. Offer a negative attribute, they’ll grab it – not to express their “belief,” in its conventional meaning, but rather to throw verbal stones at that which they so thoroughly dislike.

There are many celebrated examples. Saying the moon landing was staged is an easy way to express skepticism of the federal government. Opining that Iraq was behind 9/11 is a way to voice generalized views of Saddam Hussein’s villainy. Expressing doubt about global warming telegraphs opposition to the policy changes proposed to address it. And calling Barack Obama a Muslim is – for people who see this as a negative attribute – a handy way to say you don’t like the guy.

This concept not only explains the expressed “belief” that Obama’s a Muslim, but its recent rise. Disapproval of the president has grown, including strong disapproval. The growing roll of strong disapprovers provides a larger pool of individuals looking for opportunities to voice that sentiment. Socialist? Yep. Born in Kenya? Sure. Muslim? You betcha.

Along come the measurements. A Pew poll completed Aug. 5 found 18 percent of Americans saying Obama’s a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. It’s not much of a surprise, given the notion of expressed belief, that this view rose chiefly among Republicans and conservatives – groups most opposed to Obama, increasingly strongly so, and also most apt to express negative views of Islam.

Pew’s question offers a list of options for Obama’s religion - “is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else?” It was followed by a Time magazine question that offered only “a Muslim or a Christian”; in that one even more, 24 percent, called Obama a Muslim. (In addition to the more limited set of options, the buzz surrounding the Pew poll may have bumped up Time's Muslim result; likewise it was done after Obama’s comment on the Cordoba House controversy.)

It’d have been interesting to see if as many people came up with “Muslim” as an answer to an open-ended question rather than a proffered list. And it’d be worthwhile to probe. Back in 2005, for instance, we found that 61 percent of Americans said they thought Iraq had directly backed al Qaeda; but, upon inspection, many fewer, 21 percent, thought there’d been solid evidence of it. The rest called it their “suspicion only,” something well short of the affirmed belief this view was broadly taken to represent.

There are other theories. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan, for one, suggests that people who think Obama’s a Muslim have been led to this view by insinuations in conservative media outlets that they trust. There’s plenty of evidence that people do use trusted sources to mediate their attitudes. But it remains true that an attitude is not necessarily a “belief” in the conventional sense.

For all this, surely there are some people who factually believe Obama is a Muslim. And it’s equally sure that it’s easier for expressed belief to rush in where a factual vacuum exists; had Obama chosen to make a more concrete display of his Christianity, the expressed belief that he’s Muslim would’ve been more difficult for some to enunciate. Indeed, as Pew notes, while few Democrats call him a Muslim, more say they don’t know what his religion is.

Pew’s analysis also makes a point that reflects what I’m proposing here: “Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him.”

Given that, much of the perturbed commentary that’s followed the Obama/Muslim result is misplaced. When we think of this not as an affirmed belief, but an expression of antipathy, the tortured explanations become unnecessary. The reality is that attitudes, including expressions of “belief,” are influenced by underlying sentiments. With political emotions running high, as they customarily do at times of severe economic stress, it’s a point worth keeping in mind – believe you me.

- For more on this, see a previous post called Understanding Answers, another called Polling on Presidential Pejoratives, and, in most detail, this paper on views on global warming co-written with Patrick J. Moynihan, assistant director of the Program on Survey Research at Harvard University.

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