Ben Carson wouldn’t vote for Muslim president because he takes religion seriously (COMMENTARY)

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the North Texas Presidential Forum hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas on October 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Stone
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WAX-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Oct. 19, 2015.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the North Texas Presidential Forum hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas on October 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Stone *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WAX-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Oct. 19, 2015.

(RNS) Ben Carson doesn’t think a Muslim should be president and despite widespread criticism he hasn’t backed down.

The controversy over Carson’s comments encapsulates the ambiguity of our country’s relationship to religion — a relationship that goes back to the Founding Fathers and the writing of the Constitution. It’s clear that by not having an established national church, the earliest Americans did not want to impose a religious test for public office. No one would be automatically disqualified due to religious reasons.

As a Baptist, I’m glad we don’t have that kind of test. The earliest Baptists were the outsiders in American life, often threatened, suppressed, and jailed for their beliefs.

Other religious groups, like Roman Catholics, were also culturally disenfranchised, which is why the ascent of John F. Kennedy to the presidency was such a monumental moment in our history. So, even though the earliest Americans did not impose a religious test for office, they would have had a difficult time imagining a Catholic like Kennedy or a Baptist like Truman occupying the White House.


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But here’s the catch. The fact that our country has never had religious test for public office, and that no one is automatically disqualified due to religious beliefs does not mean that religion doesn’t matter.

The reason why Kennedy’s Catholicism was controversial in 1960 was because many feared that Kennedy’s view of the papacy would give the pope an outsized, inappropriate influence in American governance. Some of the opposition to Kennedy was based in ignorance and prejudice against Catholics, but for many, it was because they took Kennedy’s religion seriously that they chose not to vote for him.

Today, the people who were most astonished at Ben Carson’s comments seem to think that a person’s religious beliefs should be totally irrelevant to how they govern or to how one votes. But that kind of religious reductionism is silly to most religious people. We know that religion really does matter in our daily life and how we think and how we live.

So, ironically, Carson is the one taking Muslims and the Islamic faith seriously when he says he would not vote for a Muslim for president. He is opposed to the establishment of a theocracy, and he believes the theocratic elements of Shariah law are incompatible with the religious pluralism at the heart of our society. Because he takes that religious perspective seriously, he factors it into his choice of presidential candidates.

Since his initial comments, Carson has clarified that he would not have a problem with a Muslim running for office if that candidate rejected the imposition of Shariah law, and that is an important qualification. But the point remains — Carson is not saying a Muslim should be banned from running for office, only that he takes what someone says about their faith seriously, and that it would be wrong to not factor that into his thinking when going to vote.

In a Gallup poll this summer, 25 percent of Americans said they would not vote for an evangelical Christian. That figure goes up among the Democratic Party — 1 out of 3. I bet some of the people who were most critical of Carson’s comments about not voting for a Muslim would probably have answered that Gallup survey by saying they wouldn’t vote for an evangelical. Hypocrisy, perhaps?


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The truth is, however, that people have a right to take a candidate’s religious views into account before they cast a vote — whether they are evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or not religious at all. (If a Christian Reconstructionist who wants to impose Old Testament law on the nation is running for office, I am going to vote for someone else. And I say this as a Christian!)

What the Carson controversy shows us is that many people in a secular society are OK with religion, whatever religion, as long as it doesn’t really impinge upon one’s view of the world or how one votes or what platforms one endorses. The secular mindset is fine with religion, whether it is Christian or Hindu or Muslim or even atheism, as long as it is a thin veil on top of a bland sort of secularism. The problem, for many secularists, is not religion per se, but people who take their religion too seriously.

Carson does not espouse this secular view of religion. He recognizes that Islam is a worldview that requires commitments in every sphere of life. He sees this truth more clearly because he understands that his Christianity is also a worldview with implications in every area of life. What’s more, he sees the incompatibility of certain versions of Islam with pluralism, while recognizing that Christianity, according to some historical interpretations, is at least partly responsible for giving us the gift of a pluralistic society.


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Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Religion still matters. For the record, I’m thankful to live in a country where there is no religious bar from public office. But I’m also thankful to live in a country where a voter can take into account a candidate’s religious views. Religion should matter to a voter if it matters to a candidate. That’s why, in Carson’s comments, we see a clash – not of Islam as opposed to Christianity, but of secularism as opposed to serious religious faith.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

YS/LEM END WAX

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  • The Great God Pan

    “…he believes the theocratic elements of Shariah law are incompatible with [his own vision of a Christian theocracy in America].”

    Made a little fix for you, Trevin. You’re welcome!

  • Larry

    “He is opposed to the establishment of a theocracy, and he believes the theocratic elements of Shariah law are incompatible with the religious pluralism at the heart of our society. ”

    Wrong.

    He is supportive of the establishment of a theocracy and fails to recognize the theocratic elements of Christian Dominionism are incompatible with the religious pluralism at the heart of our society. He frequently attacks the separation of church and state. He wants official sanction of people on the basis of their religious faith alone.

    The author mistakes concerns of a candidate’s religion with legitimate concerns. Yes in 1960, Republicans used JFK’s Catholicism as a way to play sectarian bigotries against him. It did not make their alleged fears legitimate or justifiable. It was simply identity politics in its most crude fashion. Like concerns over Obama’s race was in the last 2 election. Plenty of racist appeals were made, but it didn’t mean they were legitimate concerns.

  • Jon

    Christian Privilege Example: Being able to slander all members of another religion, while ignoring the exact same thing in your own religion.

    Trevin wrote that: ” I bet some of the people who were most critical of Carson’s comments about not voting for a Muslim would probably have answered that Gallup survey by saying they wouldn’t vote for an evangelical. Hypocrisy, perhaps? ”

    No, because Carson said “Muslim”, not “Evangelical Muslim”. Switch the religions in your statement and your hypocrisy is even more clear:

    ” I bet some of the people who were most critical of Carson’s comments about not voting for a Christian would probably have answered that Gallup survey by saying they wouldn’t vote for an evangelical [Muslim].”

    Not voting for an evangelical Muslim is justified due to the “incompatibility of certain versions of Islam with pluralism.”

    The same holds true for Christianity. Anyone who thinks Christianity can’t be used to support a theocracy is…

  • Jack

    I too would not vote for anyone who believed in a primitive, barbaric worldview that allowed for unimaginable wickedness to be committed in the name of their ‘god’.
    Which is precisely why I wouldn’t vote for Carson in a million years. Or Cruz in TWO million years.

  • One wonders whether Carson, if he truly took Islam seriously, would be so quick to construe Islam as a religion of extremists eager to impose Sharia. Certainly, that seems to be the subtext of his cautionary statements about Islam, and equally certainly, that is not representative of the vast majority of practitioners of Islam in the United States. By implying that a Muslim president might be inclined to impose Sharia on the United States, Carson is pandering to the Islamophobia that characterizes a wide swath of the GOP base (though certainly not all within the party share such baseless misgivings, pardon the pun). To take Islam–and religion–seriously is to recognize that someone could be a devout Muslim without trying to impose islamic law through elected office. Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, a fellow Seventh-day Adventist, addressed this well in his editorial for Religion Dispatches, “Open Letter to Ben Carson From Fellow Seventh-day Adventist: Stop the Islamophobia.”

  • Kelly

    Have you been watching the news about countries like Sweden and Germany and Great Brittain where large populations of Muslims are basically taking over these countries and threatening to impose Sharia law? They are running rampant in these countries and are already threatening to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. They don’t believe what we believe, that everyone has a right to practice their choice of religion. For them, you either believe in Allah or you die. Yea, not what I want in America. I live next door to a Muslim community. Their children do not attend public schools. They live and learn in the compound next door. They do not want to integrate into our society. They want to take control of it. Ignore this at your own peril.

  • Larry

    “Have you been watching the news about countries like Sweden and Germany and Great Brittain where large populations of Muslims are basically taking over these countries and threatening to impose Sharia law”

    But they haven’t.

    At best their version of “Sharia law” is the same as Rabbinical courts or other “alternative dispute resolutions” in the US. Forms of legal arbitration/mediation for civil disputes.

    “They are running rampant in these countries and are already threatening to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. They don’t believe what we believe, that everyone has a right to practice their choice of religion.”

    That is the best description one has for Dominionist Christian. They have been using public office and political power to attack the religious beliefs of others for some time. They even make up stories to claim it is part of our history/Constitution.

  • Kelly

    In my religion, God says “Vengeance is Mine”. In Muslim religion, their god says kill the non-believers for me and I’ll give you a bunch of virgins when you die. Christians may want to keep prayer in schools and we may like “In God We Trust” on our dollar bills. Christians may pester people to get saved or baptized, but we sure don’t kill people if they choose not to. Hard core Muslims do…

  • ben in oakland

    I go to Europe all of the time, at least twice a year, Germany every year. I have not seen ANYTHING remotely resembling what you are claiming.

    “They don’t believe what we believe, that everyone has a right to practice their choice of religion.” I doubt that you believe that yourself, especially when it comes to Muslims. Christian conservatives rarely seem to believe that, or we wouldn’t be having the arguments over gay people that we have. Freedom of religion is for me. The freedom to follow my religion is for you.

    “Their children do not attend public schools. They live and learn in the compound next door.” That’s why there are no such things as Christian schools in this country, or Christian home-schooling.

    “They want to take control of it. Ignore this at your own peril.” And that is exactly what Christian theocrats wish to do in this country.

    You theocrats have a lot in common.

  • Bernardo

    I like some of what Carson says but his own religion is so flawed and false that he has no chance of winning.

  • Faithback

    This article is spot on. Anybody who takes their own faith literally and seriously as regulating their thoughts and actions can see the point. Those who take the position of circumscribing the influence of the faith they profess, have a hard time making sense of such a position.
    Very succinct conclusion by the author discussing the idea of religion being a cloak over secularism.

  • diana houston

    Dr. Carson believes that a theocracy of any kind should not govern our country. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, whatever. Sharia Law is part of the Muslim faith and the extremists have been given direction to lie, cheat, whatever it takes…to eradicate those who do not convert to their faith. So how does one tell an extremist from a peace-loving Muslim?

  • larry

    Anyone deriding secular government is just a theocrat. Secularism is what protects religious freedom for all. The people who generally attack it are those who want to impose their own religious belief on others through government coercion.

    People who want to sanction citizens solely on the basis if their religious faith have no concept of what a democracy is all about. Carson’s remarks are akin to saying that one won’t vote for a black candidate because they will force reparations for slavery.

  • Jim

    It is the fundamentalist Muslims who comprise organizations such as ISIS that are the enemy of all non-Muslim faiths. They are also the enemy of non-fundamentalist Muslims. They are kin to fundamentalist Christians like Huckabee who dream of turning America into an exclusively Christian nation.

  • Garson Abuita

    When I hear that a political candidate is a Christian, I don’t assume that he wants to impose Biblical law upon America. When Carson hears that a candidate is a Muslim, he assumes the candidate wants to impose Shariah. Apologists for Christian privilege like Wax fail to see the bigotry in this. Most Americans don’t — and that’s why there’s been such an uproar over his comments.

  • You’ve missed the Kim Davis-ization of politics. America was right to raise an eyebrow at JFK’s Catholicism, but we’re not right to fear that an evangelical president would inject religious agenda into their presidency?

    And the point about no religious test misses that politics has indeed injected a religious test! With everyone parsing the candidates’ Christian credentials, imagine if an atheist wanted to (gasp!) run for the presidency. Or even Congress.

  • Feeltheburnkelly

    Actually, not only do many people of both Muslim and the more accepting Christian faiths believe that Allah and God are on in the same (People of the Islamic faith believe Jesus was a prophet), A very big part of the Msulim faith is peacefulness and kindness. Saying that all muslims belive in killing non-believers is the same as saying all Christians are part of the KKK

  • Barrett L Case

    Carson is not a Christian, is he? He’s a Seventh Day Adventist. He can’t have “a Christianity” while holding to an errant faith.

  • Brad

    I’m not understanding why this is a concern. Liberals are upset over Dr. Carson saying this. Really? Liberals believe in the rights for abortion, do Muslims? Liberals believe in the rights for gays to marry, do Muslims? I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure being a gay Muslim is not a option. Liberals believe that global warming is happening. I’m thinking anybody who believes in a God also believes that he controls how the world would get destroyed, not people. And do I have to mention how Muslims feel about women’s rights? I wont even bring up prayer! Why would these Liberals support people who share no common belief? For Democratic votes? So let me see, Ask Hillary if she would vote for a conservative. And that’s okay if she says no. Dr. Carson Would not vote for someone who doesn’t have a common core of beliefs or goals. Who would?

  • Jon

    Yep, Garson. Good point. .

  • S.B.

    Evangelical Muslim? That’s pretty confusing. I’m really not sure what this comment is getting at. I can see you disagree, but how does Evangelical Muslim mean anything? Evangelical is specifically a Christian denomination. Baptist Muslim, Catholic Muslim… These just don’t really have any meaning. You can’t adhere to both at the same time.

    Confused.

  • Larry

    Evangelical here is being used as a synonym of “fundamentalist”.

  • Larry

    The existence of the Seven Day Adventist sect and their declared beliefs say otherwise. The thing about Protestant sects of Christianity is that nobody has any credible authority to say who is a “true Christian”. Its all just a matter of personal preference.

  • Larry

    You fail to understand the notion of, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it”.

    Disagreement over various political positions does not mean one opposes the basic rights and liberties of their opponents. I don’t agree with any fundamentalist religious belief. But I do not deny their right to vote, their right to run for public office, and their right to practice their faith. Because doing so is corrosive to democratic government and its ideals. Carson shows a desire to disregard such things to get what he wants, as do his supporters/apologists.

  • cliff hughes

    There’s a distinction that needs clarifying. Carson did not say that a Muslim should not be allowed to run for president. He said that he would not vote for him. Those are two vastly different things.

    Secondly, we all vote based on a held-set of beliefs/convictions about the way the nation should be governed. Non-religious people hold their own convictions just like religious people do. Many just fail to see that their “god” is secular humanism. Secular humanism has it’s own rules and moral taboos. Violate any of these and their are consequences. Look at the shame that is heaped on people who do not embrace their ideology. It is it’s own religion just not in a historical sense. To say that Christians or Muslims or any religious group impose their beliefs on others, but then to pretend that “secular non-religious” people don’t is to be blinded to one’s own pre-conceived “beliefs.” The question is not “if” a particular candidate “believes” something, but are…

  • cliff hughes

    …but are those beliefs and how they influence governing valid.

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