CHUCK TODD: Should a president's faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?
DR. BEN CARSON: Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem.
CHUCK TODD: So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?
DR. BEN CARSON: No, I don't, I do not.
CHUCK TODD: So you--
DR. BEN CARSON: I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.
Well, of course that depends on what we mean by "Muslim," just as in 1960 when Jack Kennedy was running, what we mean by "Catholic." In a famous face-down with 400 years of the great American tradition of anti-Catholicism, and now face-to-face with some 300 skeptical Protestant preachers, Kennedy affirmed he wouldn't let his church get in the way of the American state, and on that level, the literal separation of church and state is hardly controversial.
Which brings us to Denver [now Philadelphia] Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's 2010 remarks on JFK's electoral tactic some 50 years before:
After offering caveats about his remarks, Archbishop Chaput emphasized the need for ecumenism and dialogue based on truth as opposed to superficial niceties. He then remarked, “We also urgently owe each other solidarity and support in dealing with a culture that increasingly derides religious faith in general and the Christian faith in particular.”
During his talk, the archbishop noted that there are currently “more Catholics in national public office” than there ever have been in American history.
“But,” he continued, “I wonder if we’ve ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try. The life of our country is no more 'Catholic' or 'Christian' than it was 100 years ago. In fact it's arguably less so.”
One of the reasons why this problem exists, he explained, is that too many Christian individuals, Protestant and Catholic alike, live their faith as if it were “private idiosyncrasy” which they try to prevent from becoming a “public nuisance.”
Recounting the historical context that led to the current state of affairs, Archbishop Chaput referred to a speech that the late John F. Kennedy made while running for president in 1960 which greatly affected the modern relationship between religion and American politics. At his speech almost fifty years ago, President Kennedy had the arduous task of convincing 300 uneasy Protestant ministers in a Houston address that his Catholic faith would not impede his ability to lead the country. Successful in his attempt, “Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected,” he recalled.
“And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics,” the prelate added.
“And he wasn’t merely 'wrong,'” the archbishop continued. “His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.”
“To his credit,” he noted, “Kennedy said that if his duties as President should 'ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.' He also warned that he would not 'disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.'”
“But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that. It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set 'the national interest' over and against 'outside religious pressures or dictates.'”
Archbishop Chaput then clarified that although “John Kennedy didn’t create the trends in American life that I’ve described,” his speech “clearly fed them.”
So yes, in this enlightened 21st century, any Muslim whose character and actions are indistinguishable from any non-Muslim's should be no less acceptable or rejectable than any other random fellow off the street. But perhaps because since Ben Carson apparently takes his faith and religion seriously, he was extending the same consideration to our Muslim-in-theory here.
As Archbishop Chaput noted, there are currently “more Catholics in national public office” than there ever have been in American history. American Catholics established a century-long record of trustworthiness and fidelity to the Constitution. We have barely a handful of Muslims in public office now, and I'd imagine fewer than 100 in all of American history on any level, national, state or even local.
I admire the Jehovah's Witnesses, who live their faith in a way that few other American Christians do. The JW's were at the forefront of groundbreaking constitutional litigation in the 1930s and 40s, and "mainstream" Christians today owe a lot to them on the religious freedom front.
Like the Amish, though, JW's don't really run for office, so it's hard to tell what would happen if you turned your city council over to their control. So too, if the subject group were JW's or Amish or Scientologists or young-earth creationists or New Agers or whathaveyous, it's highly questionable whether Ben Carson's attackers would blithely pull the lever without a serious JFK-style shakedown.
That's all Ben Carson was trying to say, I reckon, and had it been an actual discussion and not a pseudo-journalistic ambush by NBC's Chuck Todd [which hey, it's Todd's job], Carson might have been able to make that clear.
Jack Kennedy didn't run on his Catholic faith, but away from it. If an American Muslim wants to copy Jack's act, well, ironically he's probably not going to get Ben Carson's vote that way either.