The Real ‘Story’ Regarding Muslim Presidential Candidates

Ben Carson’s comments about electing a Muslim president and the reaction to them from the press, Democrats, and his Republican presidential opponents has been more than interesting. If you want to get the issue straight, here’s the “story” from someone who really knows.

To begin with, it must be remembered that there are two issues here and they must not be conflated. The first is whether there is any constitutional reason a Muslim could not serve as President. If there is, the second question—whether a Muslim should be elected—is irrelevant.

The Constitutional Issue

As to the first issue, the real “story” can be learned from the forgotten constitutional scholar of the same name, Justice Story of the United States Supreme Court. Justice Story was a brilliant legal mind, being the youngest person ever nominated to the Supreme Court at the time of his nomination. He served on the Court for thirty years and taught constitutional law at Harvard Law School. In 1833 he published the first comprehensive treatise on the Constitution.1 Thus, his thoughts on the three clauses in the Constitution bearing on religion should be persuasive.

The first clause is the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits Congress from establishing a national church. The concept meant that Congress was prohibited from establishing an “ecclesiastical hierarchy” that would receive the patronage of the federal government.

The second is the Free Exercise Clause, also in the First Amendment. According to Justice Story, it was intended not so much to allow us to do in the public square whatever our religion required us to do, but, as will be seen, it was really intended to complement the Establishment Clause.

The third clause is found in Article VI, which prohibits any religious test for public office. This, too, was intended to complement the Establishment Clause.

In his treatise, Justice Story explained how these three provisions were intended to work (bracketed words added for clarification):

The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity [atheism], by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”

“It was impossible, that there should not arise perpetual strife, and perpetual jealousy on the subject of ecclesiastical ascendancy, if the national government were left free to create a religious establishment. The only security was in extirpating the power [Establishment Clause]. But this alone would have been an imperfect security, if it had not been followed up by a declaration of the right of the free exercise of religion [Free Exercise Clause], and a prohibition (as we have seen) of all religious tests [Article VI].” (emphasis added)

In other words, a religious establishment was to be foiled in the first instance by the Establishment Clause, but like a train with a second and third set of emergency breaks, the Free Exercise Clause and the religious test were added. The religious test was particularly important to prevent a back-door establishment by laws that would require those running for office to hold certain religious doctrines.

Consequently Justice Story concluded:

“Thus, … the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Armenian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.”

So a Muslim can clearly run for any office, but that’s not the end of the story.

The Political Issue

Of course, the foregoing did not mean that our Founding Fathers thought we should elect someone in disregard of his or her religious beliefs.

It was clear from the preceding statements that Christianity was the favored religion in the nation’s psyche and, collectively speaking, it was our frame of reference for everything politically and socially. And there are too many quotes from our Founding Fathers about the importance of Christianity to the future success of our country to reference.

In other words, our Founding Fathers did not, by our Constitution, prevent us from doing all the things against our collective best interest that we could do. They assumed we would be smart enough not to elect someone whose allegiance to God would require that they oppose and work to undermine the clear import of our Constitution and the foundational principles underlying our social order.

But based on the current state of affairs in the Oval Office, it seems we’re not as smart as they thought we would be.
1Justice Story’s three-volume treatise is entitled Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States; with a preliminary review of the constitutional history of the colonies and state, before the adoption of the constitution (1833).

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Lessons From Charlie Hebdo, Ben Carson, and King Solomon

Unbeknownst to me, on the same day that I was listening to Ben Carson field questions at a roundtable sponsored by a Nashville area ministry, Islamic terrorists were killing journalists that wrote for the French publication, Charlie Hebdo. Together they provided me a needful and timely lesson, particularly as the “political season” is upon us with the dawning of the new year.

I had never heard Dr. Ben Carson in person. But his manner and style of speech, particularly compared to what I am used to from those who are or would be politicians, was really disarming. The softness of his speech was such that you almost had to lean in to hear him, and you certainly had to be intentional about listening. And while he was very clear in his opinions, even about Islam, he was gentle in the manner in which he spoke about hard and even unpleasant realities.

The next morning I woke up to read about Charlie Hebdo, a publication I had never heard of. What I learned from the news stories was that it was a “satirical publication.” To make sure I understood that term, I looked it up. Satire is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.”

When you put the meaning of satire down in black and white, it is easy to see why satirists invite wrath—no person likes to be ridiculed in public or be publicly made the object of scorn.

This does not mean that those Charlie Hebdo scorned and ridiculed—whether Muslims or anyone else—had a right to physically harm them, let alone kill them.

And no doubt “freedom of speech” gave Charlie Hebdo’s journalists the right to be as satirical as they wanted. We should defend their “right” to do so.

But what one has a right to do does not mean it is the right thing to do. And that put me to thinking about the fact that words are powerful things.

As I reflected on this and these two contrasting styles of communication, I remembered that the author of the book of James in the Bible said that the “tongue is a fire … and set on fire by hell.” And the more I thought about words and the manner in which we convey them, I found myself pouring over the book of Proverbs, because I knew it contained much wisdom about how we use our words.

And here are some “words” from Proverbs that I know I would do well to ponder and seek to apply, particularly as I try to share insights on the cultural issues of our day and the words and works of our politicians. (Each Scripture is taken from the NASB, with chapter and verse in parenthesis.):

Death and life are in the power of the tongue:
and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof (18:21).

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger (15:1).

Like apples of gold in settings of silver
Is a word spoken in right circumstances (25:12).

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword,
But the tongue of the wise brings healing (12:18).

The heart of the wise instructs his mouth
And adds persuasiveness to his lips (16:23).

Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out,
Even strife and dishonor will cease (22:10).

Wise words—words of understanding about the nature and power of the tongue and, just as importantly, about the nature of man in the way that he responds to them. While the First Amendment cannot and should not force me to heed their wisdom, Solomon certainly provided an incentive to do so:

A man who wanders from the way of understanding
Will rest in the assembly of the dead (Proverbs 21:16).

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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