Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Religious identity theft runs rampant
Mimicking a bedbug infestation, a rising number of Americans are sucking blood out of President Barack Obama’s Christian identity. They persist in spreading rumors that our president is a Muslim.
A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center reported an alarming rise in gullibility. Almost 1 of 5 Americans claims our Christian president is a Muslim. This number rose to 18 percent from 12 percent during the 2008 presidential campaign. Then it dipped to 11 percent when President Obama took office in March 2009. Now it’s spiked upward.
Why do rumors persist that the president’s religious identity is Muslim?
Nicholas DiFonzo, professor of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology, an authority on rumors that spread faster than bedbugs, tells why so many deny President Obama’s Christian identity.
“We are in such a highly polarized political environment,” notes Professor DiFonzo. “Our country is sorting itself into more closely knit, opposing factions each year.”
Factions form what DiFonzo labels “echo chambers,” hothouses for growing gossip and passing off fibs as facts.
We heard reverberations from a popular echo chamber that ricocheted through our society at the beginning of the Iraq war. Roughly 60 percent of Americans believed the following statement about why we went to war: “After discovering that Saddam Hussein was both actively supporting al Qaeda and deploying weapons of mass destruction, the United States with the full support of the international community invaded Iraq in March 2003.”
That statement is wrong on two counts. Saddam Hussein never supported al Qaeda. He didn’t deploy against our military WMD that U.S. intelligence reported he hid in his arsenal.
Whereas only 23 percent of those who tuned in to NPR or PBS to get their news believed these lies, 55 percent of CNN viewers did. This number soared to 80 percent for those whose favorite channel is Fox News. Seventy-eight percent of President George W. Bush’s backers for the war who watched Fox News believed Saddam Hussein stored WMD and had covert ties to al Qaeda. The number of misinformed dropped to 50 percent when Bush fans watched public affairs reports on PBS and NPR.
The Bible commands us not “to bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). But an expanding group of conservative Christians question our president’s religious identity without having qualms about disobeying God’s ninth commandment.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late New York senator, declared, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
A growing number of Americans make up facts because they lock themselves in news echo chambers that spread lies.
For instance, three days after President Obama spoke about religious liberty in reference to building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, Rush Limbaugh addressed the president as “Imam Obama” who ranks as “America’s first Muslim president.”
Then Rush feigned horror at critics who accused him of spreading like a bedbug epidemic untruth about the president’s religious identity. Rush lamely rebutted critics, saying they didn’t get his coy humor. He uses parody to make points and gets “ditto heads” to giggle about the president. That’s all.
In the past, our nation tuned in to three major news sources: CBS, NBC and ABC. I grew up watching Walter Cronkite, who sometimes featured Eric Sevareid’s reliable commentary on world news. Now THE NEWS doesn’t exist. It’s divided into separate news packages that fit different consumer tastes. These 24-hour-a-day news sources (biases) function like echo chambers. They reverberate with what watchers already assume is true.
Conservatives rally around Fox News to confirm their prejudices. Liberals tune in to MSNBC for a spin that resonates with their politics.
CBS formerly featured news in the Cronkite era that our nation stamped as legitimate. Now this audience is shrinking and getting older. The median age is 61. E
ighteen- to 24-year-olds rely on tweets and staccato blasts of news from cell phones. Those in this age group make Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central their No. 1 source for current events. Imagine! Making comedians custodians of what’s true.
Commentary writer James Poniewozik, in “The Myth of Fact” (Time Magazine, Aug. 23, 2010, p. 62), recites a Mark Twain quip about the race between what’s true or false: “Mark Twain is reputed to have said (or is it only a rumor?) that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is tying its shoes. For the lie, transportation has only improved since Twain’s day. Whereas the truth now finds that, before departing, the lie has tied its shoelaces together.”
President Obama strongly identifies himself as a Christian. No fooling. This is true.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.