WASHINGTON — You're fooling yourself if you think that religion in politics is a recent phenomenon. Even before the so-called religiously inspired "Moral Majority" of evangelicals openly dipped more than just a toe in politics, a candidate's faith always was an issue. The nation's pulpits either aggressively or subtly always have been places of advocacy for those whose stated policies best supported whatever beliefs the church, synagogue or mosque espoused.
It took Americans until 1960 to elect a Catholic to the presidency, and then it almost didn't happen. A member of the Hebrew faith never has made it to the White House. Only one Jew has had a place on a national ticket, in the second spot, and as for a Muslim, well ...
That's debatable, at least for an increasing number of voters who seem to think that Barack Obama is a closet follower of Muhammad. Of course there is not one shred of evidence beyond the fact he was born of a Muslim father and has a middle name, Hussein, that is generally held by those from Islamic countries, to back up that assumption. While he attended a Muslim school in Indonesia for a relatively short time, his mother and her parents raised him Christian. His father had practically no presence or influence in his life, apparently having been an itinerant practitioner of plural marriage.
So who is to blame for this sudden surge in voter suspicion of the young president's faith? It would be too easy to cite the Internet, although the constant deluge of misinformation from that source clearly has been a major factor. But Obama himself must carry a lot of the burden. In what has been almost a textbook example of political left-footedness, the president and his advisers have created a vacuum for his opponents to fill. He has failed to make church attendance here part of his routine, preferring apparently to worship in private.
While that is certainly his right and besides the fact that he is not the first chief executive to do so, that lack of visible adherence to his Christian faith provides those who challenge his religious allegiances and clearly dislike him for other reasons with enough circumstantial evidence to convince a whole lot of gullible folks, particularly those prone to carrying their religion on their sleeves.
The situation has been exacerbated by the president's ill-advised step into the middle of the New York mosque furor and his scramble to get back out of what has become a political swamp for his party. The mistakes, it seems, just keep on multiplying. The other day, the White House, obviously trying to counteract the polls that revealed increasing doubts about the president's religious affiliation, planted a story in the national press that outlined his Christian activities, including frequent conversations seeking advice from a select group of ministers.
That is all well and good, but just the simple act of picking a church or churches for regular Sunday attendance would have gone a long way toward defusing his critics' rhetoric. It would calm the waters considerably among those Americans who take their religion seriously and want the reassurance that so does their leader. Is he a Muslim? He is not, and he has a past record as a practicing Christian, albeit with a controversial preacher.
But so what if he were a Muslim, Jew or Buddhist? He is sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution only protects the right to believe as one wants but holds religion separate from the operation of government. An enormous majority of Muslims are law-abiding citizens who follow the teachings of their holy book in a peaceful, responsible manner. What is unfortunate is that, as in any religion, there are radicals who twist those teachings to suit their own political ends, tarring everyone with their brush.
There is too much on the president's plate to let this furor detract him. He should end the disabling, distorted speculation once and for all by the simple public gesture of going to church now and then, if not regularly. It doesn't cost anything, especially compared with not doing so.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.