Why Ben Carson’s Muslim Remarks Matter

by Reihan Salam

I largely agree with Jonah’s remarks on the very dumb conversation we’ve been having about Muslims in public life, and he’s absolutely right that voters are entitled to disfavor candidates based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof. There are, however, a few things that concern me about this dumb conversation. First, I fear that many Americans, including many conservatives, haven’t fully reckoned with the extent to which rising diversity, including rising religious diversity, is a fact of life that we will have to deal with for a long time, regardless of what happens to, say, future immigration levels. The cultural consensus that was dominant when Ben Carson came of age is no longer dominant, and those who champion conservative ideals need to learn how to navigate this new landscape.

Over the past few decades, there has been a marked increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, at least some of whom are assertive in their hostility to religious practice and to the expression of religious beliefs in the public square. Moreover, there are many Americans who embrace an idiosyncratic blend of spiritual traditions, and not just in bohemian enclaves. I would argue that these trends — this turn away from traditional religious practice and religious community — are a much bigger deal than the increase in the size of the U.S. Muslim population. When Carson suggests that a Muslim should never be president, he isn’t just alienating Muslims. He is alienating other Americans as well.

I appreciate that many conservatives who find the idea of a Muslim president distasteful have no qualms with the idea of a Jewish president, or perhaps a Buddhist or a Hindu president. It is worth noting, however, that Buddhists and Hindus, like Jews and Muslims, are heavily Democratic constituencies, as Razib Khan has observed. One possibility as to why this is the case is members of these small religious minorities see the Democrats as the party of tolerance and inclusion and Republicans as the party of intolerance and exclusion. I happen to believe that the GOP should be the party that celebrates the idea of a common culture, and that promotes assimilation and integration. If such a stance is seen as intolerant or exclusive, so be it. But in the culture wars to come, I believe that observant evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews are going to need allies, and that they can find them among seculars who embrace our tradition of religious freedom as well as among Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims who feel the same way. One of the more consistent patterns identified by the Pew Research Center is that people who know a Muslim personally are far more likely to think well of Muslims than those who do not, a pattern that also obtains with members of other religious minorities. Just as the deep distrust that once separated evangelicals and Catholics has been greatly reduced by the fight against abortion, one wonders if future battles over religious liberty will make the divide between Muslims and the members of other religious communities less important than the political goals they share. 

Finally, I’ll just note that U.S. Muslims are subject to the same secularizing dynamics that are at play with the members of every other religious community, and that while there are certainly many Muslims who embrace extremist views, there are many others (more, I would argue) who are falling away from religious practice entirely, for better or for worse. When prominent political figures start making statements that can plausibly be characterized as anti-Muslim, they raise the political salience of Muslim identity. They harden the view that Muslims will forever be excluded from mainstream institutions, regardless of whether they embrace American cultural norms and constitutional ideals. The result, I fear, will be more alienation rather than less. 

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