Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments

Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper.  Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter).  But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.

In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion.  He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian.  I agree with Jacoby thus far.  I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.

Walker, of course, couldn’t resist.  He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian.  This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one.  Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:

[Walker] has plenty of company.

During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.

That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.

Indeed.  But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:

Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.

This is NOT honest confusion.  Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians.  What this is is racism.  This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement.  I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion.  I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs.  As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:

public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.

This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original).  Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.”  Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.

Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance.  Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture.  Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist.  These are both fallacies.  Clearly.  Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths.  These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age.  Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact).  These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth.  Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.”  And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim?  Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.

Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column.  Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant.  He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology.  But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.


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§ 15 Responses to Agnotology and Obama’s Religion

  • Brian Bixby says:

    The birther case offers a very pointed parallel. Many of its arguments about how Obama was not “natural born” citizen, and therefore unqualified for the Presidency, could more truthfully be applied to potential GOP Presidential candidates Rubio and Cruz, especially Cruz. So right-wing sites that previously supported or stayed quiet about birtherism have suddenly seen the defects in the birther position. It’s especially funny when a site goes through severe (il)logical contortions to try to prove Cruz is qualified while Obama is not.

    • Ted Cruz cannot be president. It’s that simple. He was born in Canada. He can no more be president than I can. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger could be. The Constitution is perfectly clear about that.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        I’m not so sure, Matt. The Constitution specifies “natural born,” not “native born.” Now what “natural born” means has been disputed. The birthers used Vattel as if he was Scripture to say that it meant born in this country of two American parents. But the more common explanation, supported by the Wong Kim Ark decision, is that it means one was born a U.S. citizen, EITHER because one was born on U.S. soil, OR because one was born to a U.S. parent and conditions specified by statute that made one a citizen at birth. By that logic, while you and Arnold Schwazenegger are still out of luck, Cruz passes because he was born of an American mother under conditions that made him a U.S. citizen at birth, notwithstanding his actual birth in Canada.

      • Not sure about that, Brian. Take, for example, the case of some friends of mine. She is a native-born American, he is a native-born Canadian. Their children were born in Montreal. Homeland Security regards their kids as Canadian, despite the fact she’s American and they are currently living in the US.

        So it’s not so cut and dry. As far as I understand, US citizenship isn’t conferred automatically, there is paperwork that needs to be filled out later. Thus, one is not, strictly-speaking, a natural-born citizen.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        What you say would be true if the paperwork is considered to confer citizenship, instead of merely provide administrative confirmation. After all, even if you’re born in this country, you need a birth certificate (or equivalent).

        Here’s the law on the subject:

      • Well, what I’m saying is that these kids are not American, as defined by Homeland Security at the border.

  • Akire Bubar says:

    Great article. A question though – why is ignorance about Obama’s religion racist? Ignorant and obnoxious, sure, but I’m not sure it’s racist. It’s easy to see that many of the criticisms leveled at Obama are racist in nature, but I’m not sure this one is. This one seems to me to be more of an example of members of the dominant culture, in this case Christianity, to be looking for absurd reasons not to include someone. To me, that’s every bit as bad as racism, and I think it comes from more or less the same place, but I don’t think it’s racism per se. What am I missing here?

  • AprilEsutton says:

    I agree with you and these issues make my head hurt.

  • petersolving says:

    I would like to reiterate Akire’s comment.

    I have concerns about resorting to labeling this political ploy as “racist” as well. While, I agree with the your article’s intent to expose the corruption of exploiting ignorance to make a political point, I have reservations about calling Jeff Jacoby a racist.

    First and foremost, in current culture, media, and politics it is popular to discredit a person as racist when they challenge a member of a minority. This is not always the case. There can be lots of reasons to challenge someone’s political stances, which transcend the color of their skin or their ethnicity.

    That being said, Jeff’s “challenge” is unfair and leans on the ignorance of the masses to make a point. I think this portion of your article is well thought out.

    As an alternative, I would like you to consider my hypothesis for this perpetuated ignorance that Barack Hussein Obama is Muslim. Before Obama had very good name recognition (back in 2007), many politically ignorant Americans confused his name with well-known enemies of the state–Osama bin Laden and Sadam Husein. It is my guess that confusion lead many, by word association, to develop the idea subconsciously that Obama was a Muslim. This obviously was used politically to develop false conspiracies against Obama.

    Now, back to Jeff. If Jeff does not like Obama’s political positions, and he is knowingly using this public’s ignorance to discredit Obama, then he is dishonest–yes! Is he a racist? I think that’s too much of a stretch.

    — Peter Solving

    • I don’t mean to say I think Jacoby is racist. I think Jacoby is an idiot, but that’s a different thing entirely. My animus towards him comes from his willingness to reach out to the lowest common denominator in his columns. I don’t think he’s really that daft, I think he’s intelligent, but like most of the right in this country, he seeks to swing at low-hanging fruit. And that is a bad thing. He is doing what you say he is: Using public ignorance to discredit, or attempt to discredit, Obama. He is intellectually dishonest.

      I don’t recall many people confusing Obama’s name with Bin Laden’s, at least not in the mainstream, the moderate right, or on the left. Maybe politically ignorant folk did. I do remember right-wing radio shockjocks continuing to refer to him as Barrack Osama bin Laden, even after he was elected president. The idea he’s Muslim was purposely seeded by the likes of people like this. And this is all tied to race. But, much of the chatter in far right circles is about his skin colour and the n-word is thrown around easily. Note I quote Conservapeadia in this post. But, I stick by my claim that much of the personal animosity towards Obama (not the political) is due to his skin colour. This leads to all sorts of flat-out stupid claims about him, like one I read this morning wherein a woman in South Carolina claims that Obama, who is a “socialist dictator” in her mind, attempted to detonate a nuclear bomb in Charleston. I wish I was kidding.

  • […] newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, […]

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