by Michael S. Russo
Much to my own surprise I find myself in agreement with a position made by Republican presidential contender Ben Carson. Last week, Carson got into a heap of trouble when he stated, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Expanding upon his remarks, Carson later said a Muslim should not be president because his or her faith would be inconsistent with the Constitution, but suggested that his opposition would apply to any religion that had tenets which would interfere with a president’s abilities to carry out his constitutional duties.
The firestorm that erupted because of these remarks in the media was predictable. On the surface what Carson seemed to be advocating was blatant religious discrimination. In fact, Article VI of the US Constitution specifically states: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
So how on earth can anyone—and in particular a self-professed progressive like myself—possibly support a position that seems so morally problematic?
My agreement with Carson’s statements is based upon my understanding that the founding fathers of our nation were products of the Enlightenment and established a government grounded in what they considered rational principles. First and foremost, they believed in the idea of the basic political and economic equality of human beings—a principle that our nation would expanded upon in the 20th century by recognizing the equal rights of women and minorities. They believed that tolerance for diverse viewpoints was essential to functioning democracy and thus emphasized freedom of speech and press. Having liberated themselves from the control of a snooping, intrusive government, our founders also advocated the right to privacy, which means that people have the right to live any way they so choose provided that they don’t interfere with other people’s rights to do the same. Finally, they established an unequivocal right for people to practice the religion of their choice without interference and rejected the idea of any state religion.
These are not religious principles: they don’t exist in any sacred text that I know of. They’re rational principles—fundamental tenets of political life that our founders thought were absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of any political community. They are also principles that arose out of the Enlightenment, a period in which human beings rejected blind ideology and looked to reason and rationality as tools for organizing government. For products of the Enlightenment like our Founding Fathers, truth was not found in sacred texts or in the pronouncements of religious authority, but in the rational mind’s ability to uncover these truths logically and scientifically.
Unlike Ben Carson and other conservatives who view the Constitution as a sacred document inspired by God, I have no trouble with a president who doesn’t agree with everything in the Constitution (the Second or the Fourteenth Amendments, for example). But I would have problems with anyone running for President who doesn’t understand the basic Enlightenment principles which are the cornerstone of modern Western political philosophy. I would also never support any candidate who thinks that whatever “sacred book” he or she follows should be the foundation upon which to organize political and social life in this country and who takes the words in that sacred book literally.
With the exception of the Pali Canon—the “bible” of Buddhists—I know of no sacred text of any of the world’s major religions that does not have some crazy talk about the subordination of women, the killing of gays, the support of slavery, and the persecution of non-believers. It’s fundamentalism, therefore, that would seem to be the disqualifier for running for President, not rigid devotion to the Constitution (which is itself another form of literalism and fundamentalism). If it’s true, as some scholars of religion suggest, that Islam by its very nature is a fundamentalist religion—in other words, that it views the Koran literally as the word of God as dictated directly to the Prophet Mohammed—then how indeed could one be a President and a Muslim without rejecting many of the guiding principles of the sacred text of Islam?
But this same principle would apply to any other fundamentalist religions as well, including, but not limited to, Evangelical Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Mormanism, and Scientology. Adherents of all these sects reject the basic principles of the Enlightenment upon which the United States was founded and are forced to accept many of the toxic, antidemocratic ideas within their sacred texts as literal truth. If a Muslim shouldn’t be President, then neither, I’m afraid, should any current Republican candidate, because they are all religious fundamentalists to one degree or another.
Please note that I didn’t say that one couldn’t be a religious believer and be president. Roman Catholics, Liberal Protestants and Jews, and many Buddhists, do not necessarily have literalist interpretations of their sacred texts. They accept that their scriptures must be read historically, and that the truths contained within them can be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically. They also have no problem using reason, logic, and scientific evidence as bases for organizing society. There seems to be no incompatibility, therefore, between the practice of these religions and the holding of high office in a country like the United States.
So, I’m all for Bernie Sanders (a non-practicing Jew) being our next President, but Ben Carson (Seventh-Day Adventist fundamentalist), I’m afraid, just won’t cut it.