Richard Shiro/ AP
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the conservative Heritage Action presidential forum on Friday. Carson has said he would not vote for a Muslim president because he believes Islam is "inconsistent" with American values.

Ben Carson says a Muslim shouldn't be president. Who agrees?

Polls suggest that 38 percent of voters would not support a Muslim candidate, but that, overall, Americans are becoming more accepting. 

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson “absolutely would not” support a Muslim president, as he told NBC host Chuck Todd in a “Meet the Press” interview airing this Sunday. 

Asked by Mr. Todd whether a candidate’s faith should matter, Dr. Carson, a Seventh Day Adventist who enjoys an 87 percent approval among white Evangelicals, replied that a president’s beliefs should not be “inconsistent with the values and principles of America,” or with the Constitution. When Todd then asked if Carson considered Islam “consistent with the Constitution,” Carson said no, without providing further explanation.

The “Meet the Press” conversation comes in the wake of candidate Donald Trump’s latest controversy surrounding race and religion, after he declined to correct a New Hampshire supporter on Thursday who claimed, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.” 

The exchange quickly drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, reflecting a GOP increasingly concerned with Trump’s often-contentious rhetoric. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for instance, told the “Today” show, “I wouldn’t have permitted that,” calling President Obama’s American roots and Christian faith “self-evident.”

Obama was born in Hawaii and is Christian. But according to recent polls, many Americans believe otherwise: CNN/ORC found that only 71 percent of conservatives think Obama was born in the US, while nearly half suspect he is Muslim.

Carson is far from alone in preferring a non-Muslim president. For decades, Gallup has surveyed Americans about their support for hypothetical candidates with particular characteristics, asking “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ____, would you vote for that person?” Results from 2015 reveal that 27 percent of Democrats, and 55 percent of Republicans, would not elect a Muslim.

When the poll began in 1937, voters were only asked whether they would support a female, Catholic, or Jewish candidate, to which 33 percent, 60 percent, and 46 percent said “Yes,” respectively. Changes to the survey itself reveal the country’s shifting demographics, and advancing laws: respondents were first asked about black and atheist candidates in 1958, Mormons in 1967, gay candidates in 1978, Hispanics not until 2007, and Muslims in 2012.

Although a Muslim candidate would evidently face an uphill battle, the steepest challenge awaits atheist and socialist politicians. Support for an atheist candidate has doubled since the 1950s, but is still low, at 60 percent. But support for socialists is still rarer, making it the least-popular characteristic, with a full half of respondents saying a socialist could not win their vote. 

Over the decades, support for most categories has risen: today, as a diverse array of candidates wrestles for the 2016 nominations, more than 90 percent of Americans say they would vote for a Catholic, female, black, Hispanic, or Jewish president. 

Would a Muslim candidate today fare better than 2012? It’s hard to say. Among Democrats, support for a hypothetical Muslim president has inched up, from 69 percent to 73 percent, but Republicans’ approval has actually fallen, down to 45 percent from 2012’s 47 percent. 

Long-term, the increased-acceptance trend may continue, thanks to generational outlooks: Gallup notes that “at least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey,” and support for a Muslim candidate is highest among the age 18-to-29 set, at 76 percent, a full 32 percentage points higher than among voters over 65.

Vox’s Max Fisher has hypothesized that Obama’s attempt “to defray the tide of American Islamophobia” in reaction to ISIS may fuel some Americans’ stubborn insistence that he is a Muslim, in spite of his numerous mentions, and displays, of his Christian faith. The same fear of radical Islam, framed as a war of civilizations, likely hampers any Muslim candidate’s chances.

For now, though, the candidate most likely affected by these numbers is none other than Senator Bernie Sanders: as of 2007, 57 percent said they would not vote for a candidate over age 72, adding to his challenges as a 74-year-old nonobservant Jewish socialist.

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