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Obama: Eligibility and Faith (Updated)

Posted April 25, 2011, 7:01 p.m.

Barack Obama, Certification of Live Birth

I’m not one of those radical right-wingers who thinks President Barack Obama (D) is a Kenyan-born Muslim bent on the destruction of America. No. It is possible that Obama is accelerating our national destruction, but he is doing so with failed Keynesian economic policies and his own apparent lack of historical knowledge. I do not believe he is doing it on purpose, or that there are any diabolical conspiracies behind it all.

But the festering claims that circle through the far right—that he was born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be president, and that he is a Muslim—just won’t go away. I have ignored these two controversies, for fear of giving them any additional attention, but they have continually boiled near the surface anyway. It is time to address them head-on. Here are the facts:

Is Obama a ‘Natural Born Citizen’?

The State of Hawaii, through its official process, has certified that Barack Hussein Obama II was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. While the U.S. Constitution never specifically addresses what level of faith the federal government must place in the decisions of the states, it does require that states trust one another’s documents: “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State” (Article IV, Section 1). Considering that the states are the keepers of birth records, it stands to reason that the citizenship requirement is satisfied when one of the states certifies it as being satisfied. Hawaii’s official certification of Obama’s place of birth is the final word on the matter unless accusers can present some kind of indisputable proof that Hawaii’s records are in error.

In June 2008, the Obama campaign produced a copy of his Hawaii ‘Certification of Live Birth’ document. This is the kind of document that is usually provided when people request a copy of their birth certificate from their respective state authorities; it is not an original, but an official document stating that the original exists and providing its most important information. This document is good enough to certify your citizenship for the purposes of getting a U.S. passport, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be good enough for anything else.

Having said that, President Obama has the right to request a copy of the original birth certificate—usually typed or even hand-written by hospital officials and signed by the attending doctor at the time of his birth. According to some reports, Hawaii has destroyed the original physical documents from the era, but records were transferred either to microfiche or digital files before destruction. Many of those on the left who sneer with derision at the ‘birthers’ on the extreme right claim that Hawaii will not provide copies of the original certificate, and that Obama couldn’t get one even if he wanted to. This is false. Under Hawaii law, people with “a tangible interest in [a] vital record”—which would include the person who the record is about—may request copies, and the state will provide them. The claim from the ‘left’ that Obama can’t get a copy of the original long-form certificate is nearly as absurd as the claim from the ‘right’ that Hawaii is falsifying birth records. As such, it is quite curious that Obama has not obtained the original document and made it available for inspection. Doing so during the campaign would likely have prevented this whole thing from ever becoming an issue, or at least made it even more of a fringe movement than it already is.

Conspiracy theorists say that the original does not exist and that the certification provided by Hawaii has been fabricated or falsified by a friendly Democratic administration in the Hawaii state government. Of course, the current Governor of Hawaii—Neil Abercrombie—is a Democrat. But Abercrombie assumed office on December 6, 2010, and it was his predecessor’s administration that provided the certification of Obama’s birth during the 2008 campaign. If there are any doubts about the honesty and trustworthiness of the certification provided by the State of Hawaii in 2008, they should be addressed to Linda Lingle . . . the Republican who was Governor of Hawaii from 2002 to 2010.

So why hasn’t Obama produced the original document? If I were to guess, it’s because the State of Hawaii has lost it (trust me; I’ve done enough work with bureaucracies to know this is possible). There may also be something something personally embarrassing or politically damaging on it. What are some things—irrelevant to his eligibility—that might be revealed by the original long-form? Perhaps he had a twin who did not survive (the long-form records if it is a multiple birth, and the birth order). Perhaps he was born at home, or in transit to the hospital, so there is a discrepancy in the date of birth vs. the date of the form. Perhaps it records an incorrect, vague, inaccurate, or embarrassing age or occupation for one or both of his parents. Maybe it lists his address as a homeless shelter, or church, or street corner. These are all possible reasons one might wish to withhold the detailed long-form birth certificate from the public that have no bearing whatsoever on whether one may become the President of the United States.

Let us indulge the ‘birthers’ for a moment, just for the sake of argument, and say that Obama was indeed born in Kenya. Does that make him ineligible to become the President of the United States? The eligibility requirements are stated in the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 5:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

So the question is one of how to define the term, ‘natural born citizen.’ The Founders who authored the Constitution were, until independence in 1776, subjects of the British crown. They were mostly lawyers and politicians steeped in the nuances of English common law, which became the foundation of our own federal legal system and those of 49 of the 50 states (Louisiana, given its French colonial heritage, based its legal system on that of France, which was derived from the ancient Roman legal system). Under English common law, the term ‘natural born’ simply means ‘from birth.’ So a ‘natural born citizen’ is a ‘citizen from birth,’ as opposed to one who is naturalized at some point after birth.

So it is not as simple as saying that you must have been born in the United States to be a ‘natural born citizen.’ Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was running against Obama for the presidency in 2008, was born August 29, 1936 at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. One could define the Canal Zone as being outside of the United States. If a Panamanian couple had given birth to a child in the Canal Zone, which was possible since people could generally pass freely in and out of the Zone, their child would not have been a U.S. citizen. If the McCains had given birth to their son outside of the Canal Zone in Panama proper, John McCain still would have been a ‘natural born citizen’ under U.S. law.

One may become a ‘natural born citizen’ simply by being born in the United States under the 14th Amendment’s opening clause: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” There are other ways as well, all clearly defined by United States Code §1401. In the hypothetical situation that Obama had been born in Kenya, paragraph G of §1401 would still make him a U.S. citizen at birth and, as such, a ‘natural born citizen’ under the U.S. Constitution:

The following shall be nationals and citizens of the United States at birth:  . . .

(g) a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years. . . .

Given these facts, the only way Obama could possibly be ineligible to be President of the United States is if he was born in Kenya (which is almost certainly not the case), and his mother—indisputably a U.S. citizen—had somehow not lived at least five years of her life in the U.S., or hadn’t lived at least two years in the U.S. after age fourteen. In other words, even if we were to accept the core arguments made by the ‘birthers,’ Obama is still almost certainly eligible to be President. To come to any other conclusion requires one to layer absurdity upon more absurdity.

Obama should have just released the long-form certificate as soon as this issue came up, even if it had some embarrassing content. If the State of Hawaii had lost the form, Obama should have publicly requested it and let the Republican Governor suffer the embarrassment of publicly admitting that her state couldn’t keep track of its vital records. By failing to release the long-form certificate in the early days of the 2008 campaign, Obama fanned these conspiratorial embers into a flame. That doesn’t excuse the ‘birthers,’ but it does lay at least some of the blame for this controversy at the feet of the President.

Is Obama a Muslim?

Obama’s grandfather, Onyango, was born Roman Catholic and then converted to Islam in adulthood. He took the name Hussein and married Sarah, a Muslim woman, and they had a son named Barack Hussein Obama—the President’s father. Born a Muslim to two Muslim parents, Obama (Sr.) abandoned his faith in adulthood. Under Sharia law, this made Obama (Sr.) an apostate, or a Muslim who has rejected Islam. There is a wide variance in opinion throughout Islam over how to handle apostates. Some endorse no punishment at all, while more strict forms of Sharia call for putting apostates to death.

There is agreement among mainstream Islamic thinkers that, under Sharia, one cannot validly reject Islam once one has accepted it. Likewise, children of Muslims are Muslims as well, even if one or both parents have apostatized before the child was born. Even though Obama (Sr.) identified himself as an atheist when he met Stanley Ann Dunham, the President’s mother, he was still a Muslim under Sharia law, as was their child. So the surprising answer to the question is, ‘Yes, Obama is a Muslim . . . according to traditional Islamic law.’

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, a well-known and influential Islamic theologian from Pakistan, wrote in his book titled The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law (see section III, part L):

In any case the heart of the matter is that children born of Muslim lineage will be considered Muslims and according to Islamic law the door of apostasy will never be opened to them. If anyone of them renounces Islam, he will be as deserving of execution as the person who has renounced kufr to become a Muslim and again has chosen the way of kufr. All the jurists of Islam agree with this decision. On this topic absolutely no difference exists among the experts of shari’ah.

Similarly, the Egyptian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs issued a fatwa in 1978 regarding a particular apostate and his children, saying in-part:

This man has committed apostasy; he must be given a chance to repent and if he does not then he must be killed according to Shariah.

As far as his children are concerned, as long as they are children they are considered Muslim, but after they reach the age of puberty, then if they remain with Islam they are Muslim, but if they leave Islam and they do not repent they must be killed and Allah knows best.

Now, of course, the determination that Obama is a Muslim under traditional Sharia law has no bearing whatsoever on . . . anything. Regardless of what Sharia has to say on the matter, in the United States we don’t call somebody a Muslim (or a Christian, for that matter) unless that is the faith they have chosen to embrace for themselves in adulthood.

Being born into the lineage of a particular faith tradition does not make one a permanent member of that faith here. According to a 2009 Pew Forum study on changes in religious affiliation, 44% of Americans do not currently belong to their childhood faith. An additional 9% changed faith at some point, but then returned later to their childhood faith. If Obama is a Muslim because he might have been born one, or even raised one by his nominally-Muslim stepfather Lolo Soetoro, then another 44% of Americans aren’t part of whatever faith they think they are either—myself included.

In his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, Obama said that he “was not raised in a religious household.” He described his mother as a “spiritual,” non-practicing Christian and his father as an “confirmed atheist.” He described his stepfather, with whom he had much more interaction than his biological father, as a man ”who saw religion as not particularly useful.” If we were to judge Obama’s religious beliefs solely by his upbringing, we wouldn’t define him as either a Muslim or a Christian. We might more accurately describe him as nebulously spiritual, non-religious, or secular.

Speaking about his faith in 2010, Obama said:

I’m a Christian by choice. My family didn’t—frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week. And my mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didn’t raise me in the church. So I came to my Christian faith later in life, and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead—being my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me.

In the end, nobody can determine with any accuracy what President Obama’s religious beliefs are except for Obama himself. I, however, see no indication whatsoever that he is a Muslim—Sharia law notwithstanding. There is no reason to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I am not fully convinced that Obama is a Christian either. He was Baptized in 1988 at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago which, according to the traditional Christian understanding of Baptism, would also make him a permanent member of Christ’s holy church (take that, Sharia!) . . . but there are plenty of indications that he joined Trinity more out of political necessity than out of true belief. Writing in U.S. News and World Report, Kenneth Walsh recounts that, “Despite having little previous interest in religion, Obama joined Wright’s growing church in part to deepen what one friend called ‘a whole web of relationships’ in the community that gave him a strong political base and a well-connected mentor.”

If I were to hazard a guess, I don’t think Obama believes in any of the world religions—at least not in any concrete way. I believe he is a typical, modern, secular American who joined a church and called himself a Christian because he thought he needed to in order to get elected. Perhaps he believes in a higher power, in some kind of nebulously ‘spiritual’ way he likely inherited from his mother, but there is little indication that he takes his publicly-affirmed Christian faith very seriously, or that he subscribes to the key theological truths of Christianity beyond the basic morality of the Golden Rule, love for neighbor, and so on.

This is not a condemnation, but merely an observation. Being a secular non-believer, or generically ‘spiritual,’ does not make one a bad person, nor would it be reason (in and of itself) to vote against somebody. Obama would not be the first president to hold nebulous or unorthodox religious views that were masked in some level of public orthodoxy. George Washington was a deist who felt it socially necessary to participate in the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church. John Adams was a Unitarian—a type of Christian that rejects many of the basic Christian theological doctrines like the Trinity. Thomas Jefferson’s fervent deism and hostility to organized religion is well-documented, and yet he attended weekly non-denominational Christian services at the Capitol throughout his presidency. James Madison, like Washington, was a deist who participated in the Episcopal Church. These are the first four, and they aren’t the only ones.


The conclusions are simple and clear, for anybody willing to look at the facts:

  • Obama is a natural born citizen of the United States and is eligible to be president. Even if we were to accept the unproven (and likely-false) accusation that Obama was born in Kenya, he would still meet the requirements to be a citizen at birth under the provisions of U.S. Code §1401 and would still be eligible.
  • Obama is not a Muslim, unless we are using Sharia law to make the determination (which I do not). He identifies himself as a Christian, and is Christian by Baptism, although there is reason to question how deeply he actually subscribes to Christian theology and doctrine. He is most likely secular or generically ‘spiritual’ in his beliefs.

There are plenty of perfectly valid, logical, appropriate reasons to criticize the President. Indeed, you will find plenty of them elsewhere on this site. These two lines of attack, however, have no merit whatsoever.

Update, 4/27/2011: President Barack Obama (D) has released a certified copy of his original long-form birth certificate.

The Hawaii Department of Health stated in its correspondence that current department policy is to only make the short-form available, and that they have only released the long-form because of the number of inquiries they have received and because of Obama’s position as President of the United States.

Of note, this policy is in direct violation of Hawaii law. HRS §92F-3 states that all records must be publicly available on request unless access is restricted by another statute. Vital records, including the long-form birth certificate, have their access restricted under HRS §338-18, but that statute allows an exception for people with ”a direct and tangible interest in the record,” which includes “The registrant” (1) and “A descendant of the registrant” (3).

Scott Bradford has been building web sites and using them to say what he thinks since 1995, which tended to get him in trouble with power-tripping assistant principals at the time. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University, but has spent most of his career (so far) working on public- and private-sector web sites. He is not a member of any political party, and brands himself an ‘independent constitutional conservative.’ In addition to holding down a day job and blogging about challenging subjects like politics, religion, and technology, Scott is also a devout Catholic, gun-owner, bike rider, and music lover with a wife, two cats, and a dog.