Last Thursday night, during a question and answer session at one of his campaign rallies, Donald Trump was asked about how he planned to get rid of Muslims in the United States. The question also resurrected the idea that President Barack Obama is a secret follower of the Islamic faith and is not a citizen of the United States.
Most GOP candidates have condemned Trump for his refusal to publicly rebuke the man who asked this question. But Trump has doubled down.
“Am I morally obligated to defend the President every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him?” Trump said on Twitter. “I don’t think so!” On Monday, in an interview on The Today Show, Trump again suggested that Obama might be a Muslim.
What explains Trump’s stubborn insistence on letting the Muslim canard thrive? Perhaps the answer resides in a recent CNN poll that found that 54 percent of Trump’s supporters and 43 percent of all Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim.
Tellingly, Republican candidate Ben Carson, in response to a question about the Trump incident, said on Sunday that he would not and could not support a Muslim president. Carson did not say that he believed Obama was a Muslim, but his remarks have revived a controversy about the President’s faith that should have been over a long time ago.
Trump knows that his campaign appeals to a very strong and ugly faction within the Republican Party. This faction has been propping up his campaign. Just listen to a Trump rally. He is entertaining, but he says virtually nothing about policy. He has no legitimate ideas. If he loses the “Obama is a Muslim” crowd his campaign has very little left to stand on. It thus makes no political sense for Trump to condemn these remarks.
But why do so many people still think that Obama is a Muslim?
Perhaps CNN could conduct another poll that shows how many of those who believe that Obama is a Muslim also believe that America is a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation.
The fact that such a large percentage of Americans think that Obama is a Muslim reveals yet again the fear and anxiety that conservative Christians are feeling as they witness the slow and steady erosion of a national culture defined by Judeo-Christian faith.
We have witnessed this kind of fear and anxiety before in our country’s history. For example, in the 19th and early 20th century Americans worried about the large number of Catholics arriving on American shores. As the United States ceased to be an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, Protestants responded to this Catholic “invasion” in nasty ways.
Our society was less politically correct back then. Anti-Catholic cartoons and articles appeared regularly in mainstream publications and newspapers. I am sure that many of Trump’s supporters would like to publish similar cartoons and articles about Muslims, but I don't think any legitimate newspaper or online news site — conservative, liberal or moderate — would run them.
Those who question Obama’s faith are reacting to more than 50 years of religious change in the United States. The decline of traditional Judeo-Christian culture in this country is real. Students no longer pray or read the Bible in public schools. Abortion is legal. So is same-sex marriage. Popular culture is no longer tempered by Christian moral codes. Divorce rates are high, resulting in broken families. All of this is undeniable.
In a book I published a few years ago entitled “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”, I argued that prior to the 1970s, and the birth of the so-called “culture wars,” most Americans considered themselves to be living in a Christian nation.
Yet even as they basked in the cultural supremacy that their religious faith enjoyed in the United States, Christians have also believed that Judeo-Christian culture is declining or is under attack. This has been attributed to many things, including evolution, liberal theology, non-Christian religions, atheists, Catholics, abortion, progressive ideas, immigrants, communists and the Supreme Court.
It has been quite common in American history for people to be afraid when the world starts to change around them. People respond to this fear in different ways. Sometime the response can turn ugly, as we witnessed on Thursday night during the Trump rally.
The idea that Obama is a Muslim also comes from a politically charged approach to Christian faith that defines a true believer as someone who is pro-life, supports traditional heterosexual marriage and believes in “limited government” (as opposed to the kind of “big government” responsible for the Affordable Care Act). In this view, it is nearly impossible to identify Obama as a traditional Christian.
And the President’s biography, especially the fact that he is the son of a Muslim from Africa, provides a convenient and useful way for his opponents to decipher his “true” identity: Judeo-Christian culture in the United States is eroding because the President is not a true Christian.
Trump is tapping into a dark American tradition and so far his efforts have been successful. But if he publicly condemns the anti-Muslim bombast of that man in the audience last Thursday night, it will mark the beginning of the end of his presidential bid.