Theo Hobson

There was nothing illiberal about Ben Carson’s ‘Muslim president’ comment

There was nothing illiberal about Ben Carson's 'Muslim president' comment
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Republican hopeful Ben Carson was asked on television whether a president’s religious faith matters. He said that a president’s faith should be compatible with the Constitution of the US. Asked whether that included Islam, he denied it. ‘I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.’

He has been accused of Islamophobia and of disregarding the Constitution itself, which states that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office'. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for Carson to withdraw from the race.

His answer was clumsy, but not essentially wrong. The US Constitution does indeed prescribe freedom of religion, and the lack of religious tests for office. But its motivation for doing so must be understood. It was concerned to establish a post-theocratic form of politics. The republic is defined in opposition to the idea that religious unity is necessary for national cohesion. That idea is the enemy.

The legitimate question is this: could a Muslim really uphold that anti-theocratic ideal? For that religion has, so far in its history, failed to reject the theocratic impulse. This is the ‘problem’ with Islam: not that it is violent (the vast majority of Muslims are no more violent than anyone else), but that it seemingly remains wedded to an essentially theocratic ideal. It is not illiberal to point this out. In real life, liberalism entails an honest appraisal of those forces that might kill it.