WASHINGTON — Pastors who've prayed with President Barack Obama defended his Christian faith Thursday as the White House downplayed new polling that showed a steep climb since he took office in the percentage of Americans who think he's Muslim or at least don't believe that he's Christian.
"He is a Christian by choice, a devout Christian," said Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. Caldwell is among a group of Christian leaders whom Obama regularly calls for inspiration. Caldwell also officiated at the wedding of President George W. Bush's daughter Jenna.
Pastor Joel Hunter of Northland Church near Orlando, Fla., said of Obama, "Those of us who've spent time with him and have had a part of forming his spiritual life can testify with certainty of his commitment to Christ."
Although Obama has made several high-profile overtures to Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide in the past year, both of those pastors said they suspected the rising false perception that Obama was Muslim had more to do with spurious Internet and partisan media campaigns.
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"There's a fairly effective 24-hour-a-day noise box out there intentionally misrepresenting the faith of the president, and it's very unfortunate," Caldwell said. "I think we're living in very interesting times when for the first time in modern-day politics we have a president who says, 'I am a Christian,' and some folk basically say, 'We don't believe you.' "
Said Hunter: "There are a lot of folks who are naive and don't know and they just buy into the strongest voice. Bottom line: They are wrong or misinformed."
Some of Obama's more socially liberal positions on gay rights or atheists' role in society could be contributing to the corollary belief that he isn't a Christian.
However, the pastors also said that his preference to practice his faith privately rather join a Washington church or to wear religion on his sleeve might have helped minimize the public's impression of him as a religious person.
Hunter described the president's call to him earlier this summer when he learned that Hunter's granddaughter had brain cancer.
"He said, 'Remember now, the Lord's with you,' " Hunter recalled. "He became my pastor for just a conversation. It was very genuine, very personal and very much at his initiative. It's one of those glimpses no one else is able to see, and if they were it wouldn't even be a question" of his faith.
The two mega-church pastors, both of whom have prayed with Obama by phone in recent weeks, spoke out after the release of two polls that reveal growing distrust of the president among his critics and a growing uncertainty about his religious beliefs even among traditional supporters.
The Pew survey of 3,003 adults found 18 percent of Americans saying Obama is Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009, two months after his inauguration. The percentage who identified him as Christian went from 48 percent to 34 percent, while 43 percent of Americans said they didn't know what he believed.
The rise in those who insist that Obama is Muslim was found primarily among Republicans, from 17 percent last year to 31 percent today. More troubling for the president may be the increase of that view among independents from 10 percent last year to 18 percent today, and the decline among Democrats who consider him to be Christian from 55 percent to 46 percent.
The Pew survey was conducted July 21-Aug. 5, meaning it ended more than a week before Obama took his controversial public stand supporting the right of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
A new survey of 1,002 adults for Time magazine that was conducted days after the president's mosque remarks found that an even higher number of Americans — 24 percent — identified him as Muslim.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said that Obama was Christian and prayed every day but "the president's top priority here isn't making sure that Americans know what a devout Christian he is, it's making sure that we're getting the economy on track and we're creating jobs in this country."
Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, said the polling marked a "surprising turn" in Americans' perceptions of their president.
As far as the increase in those who identify Obama as Muslim, Kohut said, "That's an indicator of the intensification of negative attitudes among his critics. They say, 'He's not one of us,' in so many words.
"As to the broader question of people not knowing what he is, does it matter as much as the economy? No. Does it matter in a broad sense with regard to the president's image? Yes."
The poll doesn't get into to what degree any of Obama's individual speeches or policy stances shifted Americans' perceptions of his faith.
Kohut said the trend wasn't likely to affect how fellow Democrats fared in congressional or state races this November, and that it was too soon to begin to guess how it could affect Obama's re-election prospects in 2012.
Wrapped up in all this, Kohut noted, is another contradiction: Most people say they want their president to be a religious person but that they don't want a president to make judgments largely based on religious beliefs.
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