"Barack, huh," Smitty responded. "You a Muslim?"
"Grandfather was," Obama said, according to his memoir "Dreams From My Father."
Smitty's question, which Obama didn't exactly answer, prefigured a controversy that continues to this day.
A new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. That is up from the 12 percent who believed that in October 2008, just before Obama was elected president.
At the same time, the number of Pew respondents who say Obama is a Christian -- in "Dreams From My Father," he describes his conversion to Christianity under the tutelage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- has declined from 51 percent in October 2008 to 34 percent now. And the number of people who say they don't know Obama's religion is growing, from 32 percent back then to 43 percent today. The White House blames the situation on a "misinformation campaign" from Obama's opponents. But Obama and his aides might also blame themselves for the way they've handled the Muslim issue over the years.
The question did not come out of nowhere. As Obama said, his grandfather was a Muslim. His father was raised a Muslim before becoming, by Obama's account, "a confirmed atheist." Obama's stepfather was a Muslim. His half-sister Maya told the New York Times that her "whole family was Muslim."
Obama spent two years in a Muslim school in Indonesia and later, in a conversation with the Times' Nicholas Kristof, described the Arabic call to prayer, the beginning of which he recited by heart, as "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset." Given all that, it is entirely accurate and fair to describe Obama as having Muslim roots.