Days after Donald Trump dignified anti-Muslim bigotry at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, Dr. Ben Carson announced that he did not think a Muslim-American should serve as president.
So it goes in a race for the Republican presidential nomination that is increasingly at odds with the contemporary American circumstance and with the long history of the American experiment.
No one is going to accuse Trump of being an heir to the Enlightenment thinking that inspired the best of the founders. Indeed, it was until Sunday difficult to imagine that any of the other Republican contenders could trump the front runner when it came to giving expression to reactionary thinking.
But Dr. Carson did just that when he appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Asked whether a president’s faith should matter to voters, Dr. Carson replied, “I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem.”
Asked if he thought Islam—a religion practiced by millions of Americans—is consistent with the Constitution, Carson answered: “No, I don’t—I do not.”
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” continued the contender who in recent weeks has emerged as one of Trump’s most serious challengers. “I absolutely would not agree with that.”
To be clear, Trump and Carson have every right to state whatever wrongheaded view occurs to them. That right is guaranteed by a Constitution that protects freedom of speech in general and outrageous political speech in particular. But the same Constitution establishes that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
To suggest that this absolute standard might not include Muslims is, by contemporary and historic measures, absurd. As Congressman Andre Carson, a Muslim member of the US House who represents Indiana, explained Monday: “Saying the United States should not elect a Muslim president is as absurd as saying we should not elect a neurosurgeon as president. Freedom of religion is a founding principle of our nation. And for any candidate to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for public office, to me is simply asinine.”
This is not some new interpretation of the American experiment.
This is the hard-wired reality of the United States.
Unfortunately, a substantial portion of the American population is unaware of the fact that there are records dating from as far back as the 17th century of Muslims living in what is now the United States of America, that the first country to recognize the new United States was the Sultanate of Morocco (the ruler of which, Mohammed ben Abdallah, corresponded with President George Washington), that John Adams referred in his 1776 essay “Thoughts on Government” to the prophet Muhammad as one of many “sober inquirers after truth,” or that Thomas Jefferson owned and consulted a copy of George Sale’s English translation of the Koran.
Contemporary ignorance of American history has many wellsprings. For a number of years now there has been a concerted effort by sincere if misguided religious zealots, and a parallel effort by conservative political strategists who appear to see value in exploiting fears of diversity, to redefine the American experiment as a Christian religious endeavor. History does not provide grounding for this fantasy. The founders of the country were men and women of the Enlightenment who, while surely imperfect in their thoughts and deeds, wisely sought to burst the chains of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “monkish ignorance and superstition.” They revolted against the divine right of kings, rejected the construct of state-sponsored religion, and wrote a Constitution that respected freedom of religion.
What Jefferson understood as “a wall of separation between Church & State” (as described in his letter to the Danbury Baptists) was one of the great contributions of the American experiment to a world that was only beginning to respect the view that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship…”—as was the constitutional ban on religious tests for public office.
Congressman Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who was the first Muslim member of the House, argues, correctly, that “It’s unimaginable that the leading GOP presidential candidates are resorting to fear mongering to benefit their campaigns, and every American should be disturbed that these national figures are engaging in and tolerating blatant acts of religious bigotry.”
Ellison is correct. And to their credit, presidential candidates ranging from Lindsey Graham to Bernie Sanders have expressed outrage at Dr. Carson’s statement.
If history tells us anything, it is that the wisest of the founders would have shared that outrage.