Presidential candidate Ben Carson

Carson's Comments

On September 20, while appearing on NBC's Meet the Press program, presidential candidate Ben Carson told interviewer Chuck Todd that he did not believe Islam to be consistent with the U.S. Constitution and would not advocate electing a Muslim as president.

The next day, he doubled down, saying he did not "believe Sharia is consistent with the Constitution of this country. Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that's inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution."

A day later, Tuesday, Carson tried to calm the waters, stating that the issue was only theoretical. He also said he could support someone with a Muslim background who is "willing to reject the tenets [of Islam] and accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place the Constitution above their religion."

Pretending the Issue is Constitutional

The comments set off a media frenzy. Unfortunately, the media and most commentators did not react to what Carson actually said. As so often happens these days, differences of opinion were converted into disputes of constitutional right.

Naturally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) spun it that way. Its executive director, Nihad Awad, asserted, "Mr. Carson clearly does not understand or care about the Constitution, which states that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.'"

The theme that Carson had challenged the constitutional right of a Muslim to run for the office of president was readily picked up by the media. For instance, CNN political commentator Errol Louis responded, "he's completely wrong. People should go Google Article VI of the United States Constitution." Article VI includes a prohibition on imposing a religious test on candidates for federal office. CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota began her "questioning" of Ben Carson's business manager with, "let me read to you Article VI of the Constitution, which says that anyone of any religion can serve in public office." NBC's Pete Williams likewise produced an analysis measuring Carson's comments against the Constitution. Matt Ford's Atlantic piece similarly focused on the absence of religious tests in the Constitution. And Lawrence Goldstone wrote an article for the New Republic that likewise presents the issue as whether it is constitutionally permissible for a Muslim to become president.

What Did Carson Mean?

With one important caveat, what Carson actually said is more akin to a voter in 1928 expressing reluctance to vote for Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic nominated for president by a major party – not because of his policies, but because he was Roman Catholic. Carson wasn't hypothetically challenging Smith's constitutional right to run for office then, or the right of a hypothetical Muslim presidential candidate to run today; rather, he was expressing reluctance to vote for a Muslim today because he is a Muslim.

The caveat is this: back in 1928, there was no Catholic terrorist organization targeting Americans qua Americans for execution, which hundreds if not thousands of American Catholics supported.

Is Carson demonstrating realism (bearing in mind that no one has a right to become president), or merely hateful prejudice?

Unfortunately, Carson tried to calm the controversy by insisting Muslim presidential candidates place the Constitution above their religious beliefs – a rather unusual request in today's Republican Party – rather than demonstrating that their beliefs are consistent with the Constitution. Carson's position appears to buy into the assumption that Islam cannot be consistent with the Constitution, in effect, that Islam and Islamism are identical. Given the strident positions taken by groups like CAIR, ably assisted by mainstream media who treat CAIR as a legitimate civil rights group and Muslim mouthpiece, it is perhaps unsurprising Carson believes it, but that does not make it true.

It is especially unfortunate that his failure to distinguish Islamism from Islam gives critics grounds to disregard his legitimate comment that faith matters and concern that Muslims running for public office have values consistent with voters' understanding of the Constitution – just as religious Christians are scrutinized by liberal voters and media about their loyalty to the Constitution.

Carson's comments appear to be an unforced error. Intended or not, he will be tagged with unacceptable anti-Muslim prejudice, especially given that the media and CAIR worked to obscure the focus of what he said, and that CAIR would rather muddy the waters than sharply distinguish Islamism from moderate versions of Islam.

On the other hand, given the candidates' failure to address the issue of non-violent Islamism, it is possible Carson will in the end benefit from voters relieved to hear something like their concerns aired, much as right-wing parties in Europe and the UK have done.

Johanna Markind is Associate Counselor for the Middle East Forum.