Latest Research Shows Whig View of American Religious History A Little More Problematic Than I Thought

Paul Harvey

Still clinging to that Whig interpretation of history? You know the one -- we go through tough times, but things get better, people improve, perceptions shift, intolerance gives way to pluralism, falsehoods are put away, stocks go up in the long run, bigotries have to go into hiding, people cultivate their own gardens and don't try to burn other ones down, we learn from our mistakes, enemies reconcile, etc. Full disclosure: that's stuff I basically believe in my heart of hearts.

Here's a little cold water on that rosy-hued view:

Now comes fresh evidence of misperceptions about the president taking root in the public mind: a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds a substantial rise in the percentage of Americans who believe, incorrectly, that Mr. Obama is Muslim. The president is Christian, but 18 percent now believe he is Muslim, up from 12 percent when he ran for the presidency and 11 percent after he was inaugurated. [note: this poll was taken BEFORE the recent ground zero mosque pseudo-event].

Moreover, according to the poll, about 1/4th of Americans are certified "birthers," and who knows how many others kinda sorta think that way. I realize 10% of people will believe just about anything. I realize a lot of people, including a large number of U.S. Senators, perpetrated the death panel myth, and well over 50% don't understand or "believe in" some pretty basic scientific concepts, starting with evolution and going on from there. But still, the 1/4th figure on something like this was in the category of things that make you go hmmm.

The article considers the possibility that the increasing number of people who believe this complete horsesh(BEEP) is because because Mr. Obama is doing a poor job of communicating who he is and what he believes.

Possibly true that, to a certain degree. Or maybe people are just getting stupider. I report, you decide.

Just a little more seriously: I recently concluded an essay for a forthcoming publication with a very smiley-face happy set of paragraphs on the rise of religious pluralism in very recent American history, throwing some props George W. Bush's way for some of his strongly affirming statements about Islam after 09/11 in contrast to events in the past (internment of Japanese Americans, etc.). The peer reviewers for that particular piece pointed out some obvious evidence to the contrary -- Guantanamo, attacks on mosques and people who looked vaguely Middle Eastern even though they were actually Sikhs, and so on and on. All true, all disheartening, and I could have written an essay concluding with the opposite point from what I argued easily enough. But, I was speaking from a comparative historical perspective -- compared to the past, things were not perfect, but they were better.

The recent spasm of hyperbolic bigotry, and stories like the above, leave me a little more sour than the Whiggish end to my essay (it's in press, so can't change it now!). So I'll try to improve my mood by surveying the recent edited collection of essays
African Immigrant Religions in America, which we've noted on the blog before -- and so far, it's an extremely informative collection of essays which covers everything from Ethiopian Orthodoxy to Nigerian Muslims to Ghanian Pentecostalism.

More immediately, though, I have to celebrate the advent of a true miracle, something you don't see every day:
Colorado Springs' first Ethiopian restaurant! And (by all accounts) a great one. Even better, the name of the place is Uchenna, which means "God's Will."

Having spent my first two years of grad. school, a million years ago, living about a 2 minute walk to three fantastic outposts (and several other pretty good if not quite fantastic outposts) of East African cuisine, I got a little spoiled, admittedly. Even more spoiling, the owner of one of those places used to give me her leftovers (bottom of the stew pot, all that stuff simmering for 24 hours -- possibly the best food I've ever eaten in my life), all nicely packaged in a styrofoam box. I think she thought I was a homeless drifter, when in fact I was a graduate student. What's the difference, you ask? Well, let's just say, I didn't really visit the laundry mat all that often in those days. I saved those quarters for a treat of tibbsi, alicha wat, and some honey wine.

And yes, every other civilized place got their nice Ethiopian restaurants ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and in reality it wasn't all that far to drive to Denver's versions of doro wat and kitfo. Nonetheless, just thinking about having to drive just a few minutes to get my fix of homemade injera cheers me up. Things will work out soon, things will come round again. Keep hope alive, peoples.


Joshua said…
I'm currently living overseas (Taiwan) and at the same time, burying my face in my hands every time I look at this "controversy" of building a "mosque" near Ground Zero.

I gave up the idea of going to grad. school in the humanities to teach. It's a safer/smarter bet considering the economy and the status of academia right now. At the same time, it unfortunately seems this field is more important than ever.

I'll go back to my Taiwan-consumed life. It's happier here.
Will said…
Not only do a significant number of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, they also apparently think that he cancelled the national day of prayer in 2009 and 2010 and instead held a Muslim day of prayer on Capital Hill, with over 50,000 Muslims attending.

Neither of those claims is true, of course.

It's also worth noting that the Obama admin. is appeal the April 15 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb, which said that the 1983 law establishing a "national day of prayer" violates the First Amendment.

Emails about these "events" and Facebook reports about them have flown around the web. Google "September 25, 2009, a National Day of Prayer FOR THE MUSLIM RELIGION" and see the nonsense.

You can get a rundown of the facts of the matter here:
Historiann said…
I'm slamming my head against the wall too, Paul. But this is what Obama gets for his post-partisan, post-racial approach to politics. He can't kill the poisonous rumors and half-truths and lies, but he can counter them if he chooses to. But he doesn't. He remains a blank screen, an enigma which the opposition is only to eager to color in for us.

He's a smart man, but he's presiding over a world in which politics just gets dumber and dumber. (Thanks, Harry and Lloyd!) He's doing about as well as someone with his experience might be expected to do, but clearly, that ain't saying much.

Kudos on your new restaurant scene. We've got some up in Fort Collins I've been meaning to try--I've send guests to one and they gave it very good reviews. Hope your back-to-school week goes smoothly!
Paul Harvey said…
Thanks for checking in, Historiann! I think you and I are both pretty happy people by nature (so I gather from occasional references to that on your blog), so after getting this out of my system last night I'm feeling a little better today. I need to get up and visit your fair city sometime soon. Have a good fall semester, and thanks for all the funny and thoughtful blog entries you've given us.

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