Ben Carson’s threat to Religious Liberty

In a statement on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Dr. Ben Carson, a front-runner for the GOP ticket, said that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” after clarifying that the faith of a president only matters “if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution.”[1] Carson’s comment is part of a Republican presidential candidacy trend to garner attention by sparking discriminatory controversy against minority groups in the United States.

The unfortunate thing is that it’s working

Carson is currently leading in the polls alongside the other bloviating Republican candidate, Donald Trump. There’s plenty to say about the Republican frontrunners and their incendiary rhetoric that seems to keep them afloat, but Carson’s particular insistence on claiming that not only does a Muslim not belong in presidential authority, but that the Founding Fathers would agree, is terribly misinformed. While Carson has tried since to clarify his position on the matter, the statement has resonated to an alarming degree with the GOP voter base, raising concerns about one of the fundamental freedoms that all people of faith enjoy in this nation: freedom of religion.

Carson’s demagogic comments towards Muslims include “assuming that if you accept all the tenets of Islam, you will have a very difficult time abiding under the Constitution of the United States.”[2] This turns the tables on the constitutional affirmation of the freedom of religious belief and conscience, and suggests that religion serves as a qualification to participate in public office—a remark made about President Obama multiple times by Donald Trump.

Both implications are clear contradictions to America’s founding document (see Article VI and Amendment 1 of the Constitution). What is more alarming and threatening is the support that this rhetoric has gained from the Republican Party, reflected by Carson and Trump’s spike in polling numbers.[3] The party seems to be thrilled that potential presidential candidates are audacious enough to openly discriminate against Muslims, the religious identity of about 2.8 million Americans.[4] This squeamish and intolerant behavior toward religious difference, however, is threatening America’s civil public square—a Republican virtue and democratic necessity that our nation was founded upon.

James Madison, known mostly as the “Father of the Constitution,” saw that “the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship,” as he wrote in his original proposal for a society of religious freedom.[5] Madison knew that religious freedom, the freedom of conscience to believe and have conviction about religious matters, was the centerpiece of all civil liberties. The right to exercise belief in one’s religion, Madison thought, is a duty that has “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”[6]

In other words, the right to have religious convictions takes irrefutable priority in our American heritage, not to mention our Constitution, and to deny Muslims the prospect of becoming leaders of our nation is to forsake the civil society in which we live.

Carson’s statements about Muslims, and more importantly, the Republican voter response to it, have brought a new element to the slew of prejudiced comments made to rally the Grand Old Party. Carson, evidently in a race to outscore Trump in wildly misinformed and controversial quotes, has now positioned Republican voters into discarding bedrock American values, and Americans, faithful or otherwise, should agree with Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islam Relations, in recognizing that Carson, and any other backwards candidate for that matter, “is unfit to lead, because his views are inconsistent with the United States Constitution.”[8]

Daniel Pontón is a junior research fellow at Global Covenant Partners and a recent graduate from the University of Virginia. You can reach him at dcaponton@gmail.com.

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