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.
Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.