Ben Carson's appalling ignorance: What the Republican theocrat gets wrong about the Constitution

The GOP hopeful's anti-Muslim remarks are only the latest reminder of his anti-constitutional worldview

Published September 21, 2015 3:50PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Ben Carson, the designated nice guy in the GOP race, has made a habit of misunderstanding the Constitution. In particular, he has continually insisted that America is a “Christian nation.” As I wrote two weeks ago, Carson has perpetuated the right's toxic trope that there is (or ought to be) a religious test for office. “This is a Judeo-Christian nation,” Carson said recently on Fox News, “in the sense that a lot of our values are based on a Judeo-Christian faith.”

Beyond his overt religiosity, Carson’s appeal to conservatives so far has been his outsider status. As a non-politician (for most of his life, at least), he’s been able to distance himself from the Washington consensus. The problem, though, is that he either doesn’t understand our political system or he pretends not to in order to appease his uninformed base.

The retired neurosurgeon put his foot in his mouth again this Sunday on “Meet the Press.” Chuck Todd asked Carson whether a president’s faith should matter to voters. Carson’s response was what you’d expect from a political neophyte running on an openly theocratic platform: “It depends on what that faith is…If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. If it fits within the realm of America and is consistent with the Constitution, then no problem.” Todd immediately fired back, asking Carson whether he thought Islam was compatible with the Constitution. “No I do not. I would not ever advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation...I absolutely would not agree with that,” Carson told Todd.

The need to remind conservatives that America is not a Christian nation is becoming tiresome. There’s no debate to be had here. The Constitution doesn’t reference God or Christianity or Christ. Article VI, moreover, says explicitly that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” And the Declaration of Independence, despite a vague reference to a “Creator,” does not in any way endorse Christianity. Carson has willed himself to ignorance on this matter, but these are the facts.

Carson tried to walk his comments back, saying he’d support a candidate of any faith as “long as their life is consistent with things that would elevate this nation, and make it possible for everybody to succeed, and bring peace and harmony.” No one is quite sure (and Carson never explains) what “things” would lift the nation and how, exactly, that would “bring peace and harmony” to the republic. We’re left to ponder the riddle, I suppose.

In any event, Carson is not alone in his obliviousness. His anti-constitutional views will find a receptive audience among the conservative base. Professional huckster and close Carson associate Armstrong Williams articulated on CNN what I imagine is a commonplace belief in GOP circles:

He [Carson] is not trying to be politically correct…Dr. Carson was asked his opinion. His opinion was, the timing at this point, he would not vote for a Muslim in the White House. This is why he’s not a politician. This is why he’s not trying to be politically correct. This is America. It’s a place of freedom of speech…It’s not an issue of religion, it is an issue of one’s belief system.

First -- and perhaps it’s the Trump effect -- when you hear someone on the right described as “politically incorrect,” that typically means they’re fond of being an asshole or, more importantly, saying untrue things. But this is just a clever way of making a virtue of ignorance. Being “politically incorrect” is only noble if it involves the telling of uncomfortable truths. That’s not what Carson or Trump or any of the Republican theocrats are doing when they deny America’s secular political roots.

The sort of theo-political tribalism Carson represents is precisely why we have a wall of separation between church and state. This is a nation of laws, not religious edicts. The establishment clause prevents the state from respecting one religion over another – in any capacity. When Williams says “It’s not an issue of religion, it is an issue of one’s belief system,” he’s not even half right. To begin with, what is a religion if not a belief system?

But more importantly, the president’s (or any candidate’s) belief system is irrelevant. Luckily we have a system of laws, which supersede the “beliefs” of those charged with enforcing them. When a president is sworn in, he or she vows to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States” and to “defend the Constitution.”

Carson said that “Islam is not compatible with the U.S. Constitution” and he’s absolutely right in that being president requires subservience to secular laws above all else. But Islam is no more or less compatible with the Constitution than Christianity. One can be a Christian and the president, of course, but only so long as a line is drawn between personal beliefs and public responsibilities. The same is true for a Muslim or a Jew or anyone else, which is why a candidate’s faith doesn’t matter.

I suspect we’ll wait in vain for Carson to acknowledge this.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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2016 Elections Ben Carson Constitution Islam Religion Republicans The Right