Ben Carson anti-Muslim comments: Bad for Republicans?

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson is standing by his statement that he would not support a Muslim for president, despite the controversy the statement has created.

Chris Keane/Reuters
US Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the Heritage Action for America presidential candidate forum in Greenville, South Carolina in this September 18, 2015 file photo. Carson said on September 20, 2015 that Muslims were unfit to be president of the United States, arguing their faith was inconsistent with American principles.

Ben Carson won’t apologize for saying he “absolutely would not” support a Muslim for president. He’s doubling down on this opinion despite the controversy it’s created.

On Sunday, a spokesman for Dr. Carson’s presidential campaign said that Carson does not believe individual Muslims should be barred from running for the White House. But the retired neurosurgeon would not vote for a Muslim, and does not believe others should.

“He has great respect for the Muslim community, but there is a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values,” Carson spokesman Doug Watts told NBC News.

Some public figures supported Carson’s words. Frank Gaffney, a Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, said that a Muslim president might try to govern under sharia (Islamic law), instead of the US Constitution. On “Fox & Friends” Monday, morning co-host Brian Kilmeade said that Carson should not be condemned as a racist for raising the question.

“This is an open dialogue. Why is everyone calling on everyone to apologize?” Mr. Kilmeade said.

But many others were quick to distance themselves from Carson’s opinion, or to criticize it. Fellow GOP hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas noted that the Constitution explicitly bars a religious test for federal office. Republican candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that important qualifications for president have nothing to do with religion.

Carson’s comments are no different from saying a Catholic should not be president because he or she would follow only Vatican imperatives, many critics noted. That’s a charge that helped derail the 1928 bid of New York Gov. Al Smith for the Oval Office. In 1960, John F. Kennedy felt it important enough to address it directly in a major speech on the separation of church and state.

Carson is a bigot to see Islam as terror and nothing more, writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and author who writes often about racial issues.

“You would think a wise Christian would be more prudent,” Mr. Coates writes in The Atlantic.

It’s true that substantial numbers of US voters agree with Carson. In a 2015 Gallup poll, 38 percent of respondents said that they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified Muslim presidential candidate. The comparable figure for Republicans only was 55 percent, a majority.

But the flip side of this is that a majority of the nation – 60 percent – answered “yes” to the vote-for-a-Muslim question. Thus Republicans intent on winning in 2016 are face-palming over the fact that Carson has been drawn into a debate that won’t help the party in the United States at large, and could have been easily avoided.

At the right-leaning National Review, Jonah Goldberg writes that whether the US should have a Muslim president is a “hypothetical and ridiculous question." There is no Muslim candidate at the moment in the GOP race. Carson should have sidestepped the issue, but as an inexperienced candidate he allowed the press to bait him into an unhelpful discussion, in Mr. Goldberg’s view.

The right answer would have stressed that there is no religious test for the Oval Office, but all candidates should answer how faith informs their policy agendas, according to the National Review writer.

“If his answers are no good, he won’t get elected,” Goldberg writes.

Donald Trump might be the instigator of this whole contretemps, opine others. Without Mr. Trump in the race, continuing to raise questions about the discredited notion that President Obama was born in Kenya, such a direct question about an entire religion might not have come up.

“This is what happens when a party welcomes with open arms someone who continues to espouse ‘birther’ views – and when that someone leads the party’s presidential nominating race,” write Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann of NBC News.

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