"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.
Yet during the campaign his aides shouted down even a measured discussion of the topic, and Obama's critics could face ostracism simply for uttering the candidate's middle name. In December 2007, with the Iowa caucuses approaching, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Hillary Clinton supporter, said of Obama, "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal." Kerrey's remarks caused an uproar -- one TV commentator wondered whether they were "poisoning the well" -- and Kerrey later apologized. Eighteen months later, when President Obama traveled to Cairo for a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, the White House was saying, and the press was reporting, the same thing Kerrey had to apologize for. "President Obama is now embracing his Muslim roots," ABC News' "Nightline" announced. "President Obama's speech ... was laced with references to the Quran and his Muslim roots," said USA Today. "Obama touched on his own Muslim roots," reported the Associated Press.
Many people do not pay close attention to news reports. It's entirely possible some of them blurred the distinction between "Muslim roots" and "Muslim," especially since Obama in Cairo celebrated what his campaign had once downplayed. The public may be doing the same thing now, particularly after Obama chose a White House Ramadan iftar dinner to make a high-profile statement in support of the Ground Zero mosque.
Pew asked respondents how they learned about Obama's religion. Most who believe Obama is a Muslim say they learned it through the media. But 11 percent say they learned it through Obama's "own words and behavior." Perhaps they read the White House press pool reports, which often describe Obama heading out to play basketball or golf on Sunday mornings.
Since Smitty the barber first asked the question 25 years ago, Barack Obama has been reluctant to discuss his Muslim roots. Except, of course, when he's been eager to discuss his Muslim roots. And roots aside, to the outside observer, Obama sometimes doesn't appear to practice any faith at all. Put it all together, and is it any wonder the public is confused?