On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, when asked if he thought Islam was "consistent with the Constitution," answered, "No, no I do not." This declaration has inspired outrage and applause in various precincts of the electorate and the commentariat. Carson's defenders protest that this was a "gotcha" question and that his answer is being taken out of context. His subsequent clarifications, however, belie such protests:
"We don't put people at the head of our country whose faith might
interfere with them carrying out the duties of the Constitution," the
retired neurosurgeon told Fox News' Sean Hannity. "If you're a Christian
and you're running for president and you want to make this [country]
into a theocracy, I'm not going to support you. I'm not going to
advocate you being the president."
"Now, if someone has a Muslim background, and they’re willing to
reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have, and
clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion, then
of course they will be considered infidels and heretics, but at least I
would then be quite willing to support them," Carson added.
Carson no doubt thought he was being very fair in granting that even a Christian who desires theocracy should be opposed. But his following comments make clear that this is, from his perspective, a purely abstract hypothetical: Christianity does not compel its followers to desire theocracy, so any Christian candidate that held such a view would be a rare anomaly. By contrast, Carson is confident that professing faith in Islam inevitably places a person in opposition to the U.S. Constitution. To be a Muslim is, in Carson's view, to necessarily desire the imposition of Islamic religious law on all. Thus the only way a Muslim could legitimately become president is if they commit apostasy. They would then be damned and outcast by their community of faith, but could console themselves with having earned Carson's support.
Carson is of course wrong, about both Islam and Christianity. While the U.S. is constrained by the First Amendment against any "establishment of religion," many nations with Christian majorities are not. Thus the Queen of England could not remain so if she renounced her Anglican faith (or refused to swear to preserve the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). Conversely, tens of millions of Muslims live in nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and India constitutionally committed to ideals of secular pluralism and tolerance. Thus if being a faithful Muslim precludes anyone from leading a non-theocratic government someone should get on the phone to President Joko Widodo of Indonesia right away.
What is most distressing is not that Carson would air such erroneous views, but that they have so much traction in the larger electorate. In a recent Pew Research Group poll, 40% of respondents reported that they would never vote for a Muslim candidate for president. The fact that this falls so short of a majority might seem reassuring, until one thinks of this ratio from the perspective of the three million Muslim-American citizens here in the US. What should they feel, knowing that as many as one-hundred and twenty million of their compatriots think that their faith disqualifies them from the highest office in the land?
Ben Carson's remarks and the media resonance they have achieved is a measure of the ignorance and complacency that still hamper our national discourse. The election of President Obama in 2008 briefly created the impression of the dawn of a "post-racial, post-ethnic" age, but subsequent events have demonstrated that antiquated notions of "us" versus "them" still shape the self-image of much of the public. Thus Carson's defenders protest that he has only stated the bald truth that "they" hate "us," ignoring the fact that when terrorists target Americans, "they" are often white Christian males such as Wade Michael Page or Dylann Roof, and "we" are the worshipers at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Michigan or the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The same obtuseness that applies to questions of American identity is embodied in popular attitudes about Islam, where the adage "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" finds profound confirmation. When fellow GOP contender Carly Fiorina had the temerity to suggest that Carson was wrong, she was castigated on social media. A meme circulated of Fiorina's picture, with the caption "If a Muslim was President, You Couldn't Drive a Car." While it is true that Saudi Arabia bans women from driving cars, this is the only Islamic nation (indeed, the only nation on earth) that does so. Moreover, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the three largest Muslim nations in the world, have all elected female heads of state, as have Turkey, Senegal, Mali, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, and Mauritius. As this is a feat yet to be achieved here in the U.S., the inverse relationship between Islamic culture and female empowerment is not nearly as obvious as Fiorina's detractors assume.
Ben Carson's ride near the top of the polls may prove short-lived. But the appeal of his message nonetheless speaks to a chronic problem in American society. The US will only be able to exert the kind of international leadership to which we feel entitled, and achieve the degree of domestic coherence to which we aspire, when we have outgrown the influence of such demagoguery.