WASHINGTON – What is the proper response from a prospective president to the question: Is being a Muslim disqualifying for the presidency?
Ben Carson answered that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” because Islam is incompatible with the Constitution. The Constitution offers a different reply: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
What is the right answer from a presidential candidate to the question: Is being an adherent of Hinduism – which in some nationalist versions is politically oppressive and anti-Muslim – disqualifying for the presidency? The proper response: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
What of practicing Buddhism, a faith that has Theravada followers in Myanmar who stoke ethnic and religious hatred? What of following Mormonism, a faith that once had semi-theocratic dominance of Utah and was in armed revolution against the federal government from May 1857 until July 1858? What of Catholicism, a version of which was employed to justify the murder of Protestants in Ireland?
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The proper answer to all these: While voters can make individual judgments about qualifications for the presidency, no one can be barred from running or serving because of his or her religion. No religious test shall ever be required.
And what of an evangelical Christian who rejects evolution and traces the roots of radical Islam back to “the battle between Jacob and Esau”? This is where Carson and some other evangelicals show an astounding lack of self-consciousness. Carson argues that Muslims are unfit for high office because they hold a conception of divine law that is inconsistent with a liberal, democratic order. A significant portion of the country would disqualify Carson for exactly the same reason.
Because of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, conservative Christians are currently (and appropriately) focused on the defense of religious liberty. But how is it psychologically possible to combine a zeal for pluralism with such overt prejudice against one faith? Imagine an evangelical participating in a protest against the siting of a mosque. Now imagine him going across the street to a rally in favor of religious freedom. Wouldn’t the sign he carries have to be altered pretty dramatically?
The response of some evangelicals is that Islam is different – that it is inherently oriented toward violent jihad and the imposition of a seventh-century version of Shariah law. This is a theological claim, which is also made by al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
I sincerely doubt that Ben Carson and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are the best authorities to interpret 1,400 years of Islamic theological reflection and political practice. The overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars and Muslims in the world would disagree with their interpretation, as would nearly all American Muslims.
Yet American Muslims see candidates on the main stage of American politics asserting that the worst, most ugly interpretation of their faith is the only correct one. The same could be done to Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Catholics or evangelicals. It would be unfair in every case.
This is not to deny that some religious traditions have a more difficult history when it comes to the separation of divine law from human law. It is, on balance, easier to have a healthy suspicion of the state when your founder was a judicially murdered itinerant preacher who said to turn the other cheek. But even this did not prevent the wars of religion following the Protestant Reformation that flattened much of Europe (and were the bloodiest until World War I). Every religious tradition has the temptation of tribalism. It is overcome by calling people to the best of their traditions, including respect for the other.
Carson, Donald Trump and other Republican candidates need to step back a moment and consider what they are doing. By targeting various groups for suspicion – calling Muslims a danger to the Constitution or attacking undocumented immigrants as rapists and murderers – they are opening up a space for some of the worst elements of our society. A questioner at the Trump town hall began, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims.” People once on the political fringes now feel part of the national conversation. Trump will look into their views. Carson concurs with their fears.
What gain or goal is worth the cost of breathing life into bigotry?
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.