Ben Carson, the Constitution, and a religious test for the presidency

It’s been disappointing — depressing almost — to watch intelligent columnists and advocates falling over themselves this week to botch their objection to comments made Sunday by GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson.

Carson was on Meet the Press, where he was asked whether a candidate’s faith should matter to voters. His response? It depends on the faith.

The underlying context is important. Here is the discussion:

Chuck Todd: “Let me ask you the question this way: Should a President’s faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?” [Emphasis mine].

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.”

Todd: “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?”

Carson: “No, I don’t, I do not… I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

The key to understanding this exchange, and to why so many of Carson’s critics have made absolute asses of themselves in criticizing him for it, lies in the original question: Should a candidate’s faith matter to voters?

Most analysts who have cited the U.S. Constitution’s ban on a religious test have completely and incompetently ignored those two critical words.

Let me say that I have a lot of respect for many people who have made this blunder. Jonathan Capehart, for example, is one of the most talented journalists in the country, and a respected pundit (10 times better at this than I’ll ever be).

ThinkProgress.org ran the deceptive and dishonest headline: “Ben Carson Says Muslims Should Be Disqualified From Presidency.” I like ThinkProgress.org. And I’m disappointed in their article, because Ben Carson said no such thing. He said he would not agree with a Muslim’s election as president. He did not say Muslims should be disqualified from running, winning or serving. Just that he wouldn’t agree with it.

In that, he is no different from a majority of Americans who would not agree with an atheist becoming president. A majority (I hope) would not agree with a Scientologist becoming president. Or a Branch Davidian. Or a professional astrologer. That is the electorate’s prerogative, and the Constitution does not prohibit the electorate from considering a candidate’s faith.

Nonetheless, critics of Carson have made a disingenuous appeal to the Constitution and claimed that his comments run afoul of Article VI, Paragraph 3, which reads (in relevant part) “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

There you have it. No one, under the Constitution, can be barred from office by virtue of his or her religion.

And that, folks, has NOTHING to do with what Ben Carson said. Carson was not asked, and did not answer, whether a Muslim should be allowed to run. He was not asked, and did not answer, whether a Muslim should be allowed to win. He was not asked, and did not answer, whether a Muslim should be allowed to serve if elected. The Constitution specifically outlaws a religious test in each of those areas.

But Carson was asked whether a person’s faith should matter to voters. And nothing, nothing in the Constitution prohibits a voter from taking a candidate’s faith into account when casting a ballot. Voters are absolutely permitted to consider a candidate’s religion. The Constitution has NOTHING to say about that, and it shouldn’t. You and I can consider a candidate’s faith. We can consider his race. We can consider his sexual orientation. We can consider his age. We can consider his height, weight, body odor and tooth decay. We can consider whatever factors we want.

If you won’t vote for someone because of his race or sexual orientation, you are, in my opinion, a bigot. But you still have the right to do it. You, as a voter, have every right to take into account whatever factors you want.

So I’m not defending Ben Carson’s position. I am, in fact, not commenting on his position at all. Religion is dicier than race or sexual orientation, because religion is in the realm of ideas, and a candidate’s ideas are fair game for consideration.

I am commenting on the dishonest and disingenuous argument that Carson’s comments run afoul of the Constitution. They do not. At all. Not even a little.

In the ThinkProgress.org report, Judd Legum writes, “In suggesting a religious test for potential presidents — where some religions would be “inconsistent” with the constitution — Carson appears somewhat unfamiliar with the text of the constitution.”

Judd Legum is wrong. Carson did not suggest a religious test for potential presidents in the sense prohibited by the Constitution. He suggested a religious test in a sense allowed by the Constitution: the electorate’s right to consider whatever factors it wants to consider.

Jonathan Capehart wrote: “But what Carson said is even more egregious. Not only did he display a stunning ignorance of the Constitution and one of its basic tenets, but he also is among those whining about religious freedom.” [Emphasis mine].

Jonathan Capehart is wrong on that point. Carson displayed no ignorance of the Constitution. Carson didn’t address the Constitution at all, and he was not in conflict with the Constitution in the slightest.

Look, it’s simple: The Constitution bars the government from blocking a person’s candidacy because of religion. It does not, in any way, shape or form, prohibit a voter from considering a candidate’s religion as a factor. Not even as a disqualifying factor. Period.

Over at NBC News, Pete Williams wrote: “Carson was, of course, expressing his personal view and did not call for barring Muslims from the presidency. But many constitutional scholars say Carson’s view is at odds with the design of the nation’s founders.”

At odds? Not exactly. The design of the nation’s founders, as expressed in the Constitution, is that a person cannot be barred from running, winning or serving on the basis of his religion. The design of the nation’s founders was also that voters decide who they will support. And (let’s hear it again) voters are allowed to consider a candidate’s religion. There’s nothing even remotely controversial about it.

Williams quotes Akhil Reed Amar, a Constitutional scholar at Yale: “One of the most striking features of the Constitution is how it goes out of its way to insist that the federal government is open persons of all faiths or no faith in particular.”

Amar is correct. And nothing Ben Carson said contradicts it. Amar’s statement is presented in support of the assertion that Carson’s view is at odds with the nation’s founders. However, Amar’s comments appear completely unrelated to that point.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement demanding drop out of the race and calling his comments “inconsistent with the United States Constitution.” The Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish-American advocacy group, called Carson’s comments “contrary to the Constitution.”

CAIR and the ADL are simply wrong on that point. Call Carson’s comments whatever you want. But they are not contrary to the Constitution.

I just like to be fair. I’m neither fan nor foe when it comes to Ben Carson. If he doesn’t want to vote for a Muslim, that makes him no different from the majority of Americans who would never vote for an atheist. Hold it against him if you want. Call him an ignorant bigot if you want. But be fair about it! Accusing him of not understanding the Constitution, accusing him of violating the letter or spirit of the Constitution, when in fact his comments are completely consistent with the Constitution, makes his critics look foolish.

Ben Carson answered a question about whether a candidate’s faith should matter to voters. His comments came in that context, not in the context of a religious test prohibited by the foundation of American law.

Nothing Ben Carson said implies a lack of understanding of the Constitution.

The same cannot be said of the criticism directed at him.

[Apologies for the redundancy, but sometimes a point needs to be repeated when it does not seem to be sinking in, and the blunder I’m trying to refute keeps getting repeated in news outlet after news outlet, with no critical analysis in sight.

Also, this post deliberately ignores comments made by Carson since his Meet the Press appearance. I’m not familiar with all of them, save for the assertion that the next president would be sworn on a stack of Bibles, not the Koran. For the record, I think it should be the Constitution, not a holy book].