Once Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic candidate, it was clear the presidential contest would become a referendum on race. It was not, however, supposed to be a journey into the terrain of religious fears and prejudice. But because many Americans think Obama is not what he actually is, it has become that. Beneath the candidate's Christian exterior, they suspect, beats the heart of a Muslim. Obama has tried vigorously to rebut those suspicions, but they now seem stronger than ever. Between March and July, reports the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who believe Obama is Muslim increased from 10 to 12 percent.
Of course, even if he were a Muslim, that should be no big deal. In a country that officially separates church and state, a man's religious beliefs are his own affair. Still, nearly half a century after John F. Kennedy became America's first (and, thus far, only) Roman Catholic president, we haven't fully accepted the notion that all religions should have equal access to the Oval Office.
At the start of the political season, when Mitt Romney seemed to have a shot at the Republican nomination, pollsters sought to determine whether his Mormonism might hurt him. Nearly a third of voters, they found, were less likely to support a Mormon. But some 45 percent were wary of Muslim candidates. For Obama, that is a potential problem—particularly in a race that shows ever more signs of being extremely close. (MORE)