Should a Muslim be president? A Mormon? A Jew?
The Founding Fathers thought the question of religion so important that they wrote into the Constitution that there should never be a “religious test” for public office. Despite that admonition, American politics and politicians have periodically tested whether a candidate should be disqualified because of their religion, from Catholics Al Smith and John Kennedy through Mormon Mitt Romney.
Now Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is raising the issue anew, saying flatly that a Muslim should not be president.
That likely strikes a chord with some voters, such as the one who told Donald Trump at a town hall meeting that Muslims are a problem in the United States.
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Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Associated Press, “People in Iowa particularly, are like, ‘Yeah! We’re not going to vote for a Muslim, either.’ I don’t mind the hubbub. It’s not hurting us, that’s for sure.”
Religion not as important in campaigns
Yet religion matters less and less in American politics today.
Candidates thrive when they preach tolerance. Voters want politicians with strong religious beliefs, but they don’t necessarily have to share those beliefs. People welcome the visit of Pope Francis to the country’s most venerated government institutions, with little talk that his unprecedented address to a joint meeting of Congress has improper religious overtones.
Indeed, Carson is going against the American mainstream.
“Denominational affiliation doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
Daniel Cox, research director at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute
“Denominational affiliation doesn’t matter as much as it used to,” said Daniel Cox, research director at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute.
Leading the change is the millennial generation, roughly those born after 1980. They tend to be more culturally and ethnically diverse, and they grew up at a time when institutional discrimination against different religions had faded.
Presidential elections in the 21st century have reflected this new tolerance. In 1960, Kennedy’s religion was enough of a controversy that he assured Protestant ministers two months before Election Day that he would govern independent of the Vatican.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” he said.
Today, except for Republican primaries and caucuses in more conservative states, a candidate’s faith is unlikely to be an issue as the 2016 presidential campaign unfolds. Nowadays, “you really don’t know what religion the candidates practice,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Emergence of candidates with varying religious backgrounds
Three developments illustrate this evolving tolerance:
▪ Presidential elections. In 2000, Democrats nominated Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as their candidate for vice president. Twelve years later, Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, a Mormon, for president.
Lieberman’s religion was not a factor in the race; his ticket won the popular vote. In 2012, the religion institute found that white evangelical Protestants, thought to be most reluctant to back a Mormon, gave Romney strong support.
▪ Republican concerns. Republicans have eagerly promoted opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, but many party leaders have been concerned that people of other faiths will feel alienated.
“We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue,” said a 2013 Republican analysis highlighting the party’s shortcomings.
▪ Millennials. “This generation’s religious views and behaviors are quite different from older age groups,” the Pew Research Center found in a study last year.
They’re less likely than older generations to have a religion affiliation and less likely to say they believe in God.
Not everybody dismisses importance of faith
There are notable exceptions to this tolerance. Religious freedom has become a huge issue among many Republicans, angry that federal law is forcing those opposed to same-sex marriage to do business with gay couples.
A Gallup poll earlier this month found Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who’s popular with the Christian right, getting favorable notices from 56 percent of highly religious Republicans. Also doing well were Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, and Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Carson stirred a furor Sunday when he told NBC’s “Meet the Press:” “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
Carson’s comments, though, got little political support. Cruz noted in an Iowa television interview that the Constitution “specifies that there shall be no religious test for public office, and I am a constitutionalist.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, said Carson should apologize to those Muslims serving in the military.
“For Ben Carson, Donald Trump or any other Republican politician to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for office is out of touch with who we are as a people.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two Muslims in Congress
“For Ben Carson, Donald Trump or any other Republican politician to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for office is out of touch with who we are as a people,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two Muslims in Congress.
Religious intolerance is simply taboo in most of today’s political world. “This kind of talk may not hurt in a Republican primary, but it’s problematic in a general election,” said Cox of the Public Religion Research Institute. “It sure isn’t great for the Republican Party.”