GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that the United States should never elect a Muslim president. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” he told host Chuck Todd. When asked if he believed Islam “is consistent with the Constitution,” Carson answered, “No, I don’t, I do not.”
That would probably be news to the Founding Fathers. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to protect adherents of all faiths throughout the commonwealth and and to disestablish a state church. The statute subsequently influenced the First Amendment’s drafting and is considered a cornerstone of American religious pluralism. Jefferson later cited it among his greatest accomplishments.
Many years later, in 1821, Jefferson wrote that the Virginia legislature had explicitly rejected the idea that the statute applied only to Christians.
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.
“Muslim” has replaced “Mohametan” as the preferred nomenclature, but the principle endures. Forbidding a Muslim president by law would be stupendously unconstitutional. Even if the First Amendment didn’t protect freedom of religion, Article VI of the Constitution forbids all religious tests for any public office.
Instead, Carson believes in a cultural norm against electing a Muslim president. Carson’s opposition to a Muslim president seems to be prophylactic: There are no Muslim presidential candidates, nor are any high-profile American Muslims currently considering a bid for the nation’s highest office. None of this nation’s estimated 2.8 million Muslim citizens, he apparently believes, have the capacity to lead the United States.
Protestant anxieties about religious compatibility for the presidency are nothing new. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, faced similar fears from conservative evangelicals during his 2012 campaign. Anti-Catholic sentiment also helped defeat Democrat Al Smith’s 1928 bid for the presidency. Many of the allegations against Smith drew on nativist tropes of foreign influence and theocratic subversion; they strongly resemble those lobbed against American Muslims today.
Opponents blanketed the country with photos of the recently completed Holland Tunnel, the caption stating that this was the secret passage being built between Rome and Washington, to transport the pope to his new abode. Countless copies of a small cartoon appeared on lampposts and mailboxes everywhere. Titled “Cabinet Meeting — If Al Were President,” it showed the cabinet room, with the pope seated at the head of the table, surrounded by priests and bishops. Over in the corner was Al Smith, dressed in a bellboy’s uniform, carrying a serving platter, on top of which was a jug of whiskey. Summing up, the minister of the largest Baptist congregation in Oklahoma City announced, “If you vote for Al Smith you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.”
John F. Kennedy later succeeded where Al Smith failed when he was elected the nation's first Catholic president in 1960, and Pope Francis will address Congress next week. Six Catholics also now serve on the U.S. Supreme Court alongside three Jewish justices. No Protestants currently hold a seat on the nation’s highest court, which is charged with final interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and all laws under it. Yet the republic endures.