Steve Chapman
On Oct. 22, 1844, thousands of followers of American evangelist William Miller woke up expecting Jesus Christ to make his triumphant return that day, as they had been told. That night, they went to bed, surprised and disappointed. But Miller's movement endured.

It was too much to expect that birthers, presented with President Barack Obama's birth certificate, would say: "What surprising and wonderful news! We'll have to reassess our entire opinion of him." When it comes to matters of blind faith, cherished beliefs have a way of overriding facts.

There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 25 percent of Americans, including 45 percent of Republicans, do not believe Obama was born in America. A poll taken after the release of his birth certificate showed 18 percent of those who have seen it still aren't convinced.

Something about this president impels many people to accept anything that is said about him, as long as it's unfavorable. Twelve percent of Americans think he's a Muslim. Plenty of others believe things contradicted by his first two years in office -- that he's a radical leftist, an anti-gun fanatic, a disciple of world government and Darth Vader's delinquent nephew.

They even believe he's an inarticulate dunce who got into Ivy League schools only because of affirmative action and can't utter an intelligible sentence without a teleprompter. Never mind that he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and taught at another premier university, the University of Chicago.

Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him. People of this bent don't proceed from facts to a conclusion. They prefer to reach a conclusion and then scrounge for any facts -- or "facts" -- that support it.

For them, being told Obama is a natural-born American is like being told he's a loving father and a loyal friend. They won't buy it because it doesn't confirm what they want to be true.

The phenomenon, of course, is not limited to conservatives or Republicans. It's endemic to partisans and ideologues of every stripe. In a 1988 survey, Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to believe that inflation and unemployment rose under President Ronald Reagan -- though they had actually fallen.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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