03/20/2012 03:53 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Obama and the Religion Question

Among some of the debris washed up on the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi in the recent Republican primaries there were disturbing opinion polls, one of which asked questions about the President's religion. Only a small percentage thought he was a Christian while nearly a half thought he was a Muslim. The rest didn't know.

Part of the reason that born-again and fundamentalist Christians respond as they do is that since their beliefs and convictions are so strongly held in tradition, they naturally judge the questions of Christianity by their standards. Anyone less committed is either fallen or not Christian at all. As one who was brought up in various New England Protestant denominations, I can understand those who consider our northern reserve tepid faced with evangelical fervor.

As to President Obama's faith, we have his speeches and books to find a sense of his spiritual journey and current beliefs -- that is, if we care to know. When I was asked recently about the question, I responded based not on his life experience around a variety of churches and current position as President, but from his oft referenced admiration of the essay "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As a scholar of the life and work of Emerson, I have taught "Self-Reliance" many times and have always enjoyed the discussions and debates arising from that pivotal essay. Emerson is one of America's founding thinkers and his long quest to arrive at a self-attainted spiritual understanding resulted in what many have described as the American Religion.

Rejecting his own Puritan tradition in order to discover a truth in his life and in his time resulted in a new vision. He begins "Self-Reliance" by saying "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius." Self-trust is the key. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so..." Such self-trust took Obama to the White House when most people said it couldn't be achieved.

As to his religion beyond Emerson's self-trust, we can look to his book "Dreams of My Father." As a boy he spent two years in a Muslim school in Indonesia. In the Muslim school he made faces during Quranic studies, and his mother had to tell him to "Be respectful." Then he spent two years in a Catholic school and during prayer he peeked around the church to see if the angels were descending. Evidently they weren't.

When Obama began his work in Chicago as a community organizer, he was told that most of the work was with churches, which began his involvement in more traditional religious settings. Getting his hair cut one day the barber asked his name.

"Barack," he said.

"You a Muslim?"

"Grandfather was," he said. One of the church organizers asked him, "You're not very religious are you?"

Obama began, "Well....."

She asked him why he did this work, and he spent the next few chapters asking that question of himself.

What was that "Well...?" I suggest that for Obama, given his heritage, background, education and experience, answering that question was very complicated, and it remains so. No student of Emerson finds explaining faith and belief a simple matter. There is a knowing at a deeper level that gives confidence and direction but is also complex and private.

For this reason, questions about Obama's religion are both pointless and intrusive. Some day, perhaps, with politics aside, he may well write about his spiritual journey and that is a book I will certainly want to read. In the meantime, it's none of our business.