Politics & Policy

What Ben Carson Got Right about whether a Muslim Should Be President

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Over the course of the last week, Ben Carson has offered up two wholly contradictory answers to what is in fact a rather simple question. Asked during an interview whether he would accept a Muslim as president of the United States, Carson’s first response was categorical. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” he submitted on September 20. “I absolutely would not agree with that.” This comment, which was followed up by a host of equally unambiguous contentions, caused something of a storm.

Carson’s second response — which constituted a backtracking of sorts — was conditional. “I would have problems with somebody who embraced all the doctrines associated with Islam,” he explained, this time more softly. “If they are not willing to reject Sharia and all the portions of it that are talked about in the Quran. If they are not willing to reject that and subject that to American values and the Constitution, then of course, I would [oppose them].”

Because it represented the wholesale rejection of an entire group of people, the first of these two positions deserved the criticism that it received. I will not add to it here. Instead, I want to take a closer look at Carson’s second position, which seems to me to be infinitely more defensible, and perhaps even worthy of esteem. As I suggested last week, I am much more interested in individuals than I am in groups, and in consequence have little time for any supposition that rests upon presumptuous collectivization. But — and this is important — to recognize that each candidate is ultimately an individual is by no means to conclude that voters should refrain from asking questions about his religion or his background. In fact, such questions can be extremely important — especially when there is a serious chance that a candidate’s private views and public role may be forced to intersect. As it would not be unacceptable for an interested citizen to ask a Quaker who was running for president whether he subscribed in earnest to the non-aggression principle, so it should not be deemed distasteful for would-be balloters to ask a Muslim, Catholic, atheistic, or Evangelical aspirant to explain how his faith might affect his behavior in the White House. For a private citizen such inquiries would represent an intolerable intrusion; for the would-be leader of the free world, they are fair game.

#share#During an abortive interview that aired yesterday on CNN, Jake Tapper suggested that by resting his support of a hypothetical Muslim president upon a series of caveats, Ben Carson was unjustly “assuming that Muslim Americans put their religion ahead of the country.” This, I think, is an unfair charge — not because it’s necessarily false, but because such “assumptions” are politically ubiquitous, intellectually vindicable, and, crucially, by no means limited to Islam. Like many conservatives, Ben Carson believes that “if you accept all the tenets of Islam . . . you would have a very difficult time abiding under the Constitution of the United States.” As such, he concedes that he would refuse to support a Muslim candidate until he was satisfied that there was no conflict of interest. Is this instinct reserved to conservatives — or perhaps just to Ben Carson? Of course it’s not. I do not doubt the sincerity of those among my progressive friends who insist that they’d be happy to vote for a Muslim president. But I also know full well that they do not mean “any Muslim candidate” so much as they mean “a Muslim candidate who agrees with me on the issues.” Last week, Michael Brendan Dougherty made this point rather amusingly: “I’m so ready to vote for a Muslim,” he quipped. “Just so long as he thinks exactly like a secular Brooklynite working in media.”

RELATED: On Islam, Ben Carson Is Right and Charles Krauthammer Is Wrong

#related#Dougherty is correct, of course. As they do when the candidate in question is Catholic or Evangelical or Mormon, the Left and the Right will disagree in this instance as to which of the “associated doctrines” of Islam have to go, and as to which “American values” and which parts of the Constitution should obtain in their place. But that disagreement is ultimately over detail, not principle. There are presumably few progressives in America who would decline to add “. . . providing he’s pro-choice and pro–gay marriage” to any declaration of support for a Muslim candidate, and even fewer who would ignore their traditionally exquisite Theocracy! sensors purely because an aspirant prayed to Allah and not to Yahweh. That Ben Carson began his ruminations on this topic by proposing that an entire class of people should be de facto excluded from the land’s highest political office is a real shame. That he has subsequently corrected himself — and adopted the position that, in one form or another, is held by pretty much everybody in the country — is encouraging indeed. Let’s not crucify the man for growing before our eyes.

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