Donald Trump held a town hall style campaign event last week, and one of his supporters, in the process of asking a question, said that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Trump let the statement pass without commenting. He could have offered a correction or clarification of the voter’s remark, something like, “the President says he is a Christian, and I have no reason to doubt him.” But he didn’t.
That non-response was in sharp contrast to John McCain who, in 2008, when confronted with a similar remark by one of his supporters at a similar forum immediately corrected the woman. “No, he’s not. He’s not. He’s a Christian,” Senator McCain said. He was widely praised for correcting the voter, albeit it didn’t particularly help him in the election.
Whether Mr. Trump had studied that exchange and had decided to take a different approach or whether he just reacted instinctively, his non-response to the voter appeared to be an endorsement of the voter’s statement. And if nothing else had come of the incident, it could have just been chalked up as another curiosity (if not controversy) about Mr. Trump himself.
But, of course, it didn’t stop there, because we live in the 24/7 social media super-saturation information age when anything said anywhere by or to a presidential candidate can be expected to be immediately available to the world. And so, within days, several other Republican candidates had weighed in (with one kind of response or another) to Mr. Trump’s non-response.
On the Sunday interview shows, several candidates answered questions about whether a Muslim could be the nation’s president. Ben Carson, who is sounding more and more like a neuro-surgeon without a functioning brain, said that he “absolutely would not agree” with putting “a Muslim in charge of this nation.” His reason, when pressed, was that he doesn’t think Islam is “consistent with the Constitution.”
That would be an outrageous statement if it were uttered by most high school students, since the Bill of Rights is something they have learned about by the time they reach that stage of their education. Doesn’t everyone with any sense of the Constitution know that any American-born citizen can become the country’s president? Isn’t it what we’re told by parents, educators, politicians, and anyone else who speaks to young people? “In America,” the line goes, “you can become anything you set your mind to, including the president of the United States.” Or something like that.
But apparently Dr. Carson never got that message. And he didn’t get the message about freedom of religion and the bar against the establishment of religion (both contained in the First Amendment) either. Nor did he ever learn that God isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution, let alone a more specific non-Muslim form of a deity, such as Dr. Carson may be presumed to believe in.
Carson and Trump could have been considered outliers on the subject, and the controversy still would have died out quickly, but several other candidates couldn’t resist sticking the feet into their mouths (or at least stubbing their toes) when queried on the subject.
John Kasich, who had been coming across as the sensible guy in the gaggle and had bumped up a bit in the polls as a result, said, “I don’t know about that,” when he was asked specifically whether a president’s faith should matter. Really, Governor? You don’t know whether a person’s faith should matter in terms of presidential qualifications?
Rand Paul at least thought policy positions would be more important, but then he added, when asked the same question, “I just think it’s hard for us. We were attacked by people who were all Muslim.” And here I thought we judged individuals for who they are, not for what others of their faith might have done.
These essentially ignorant statements would be laughable if they weren’t motivated by the very real perception that the base of the party would react negatively to an openly Muslim candidate for president. If the polls are to be believed, a large percentage of registered Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim and/or that he was born in Kenya. Some even believe that he is a co-conspirator with al Qaeda, or with ISIS, or with any other jihadist terrorists.
So it can hardly be surprising that more than a few of the many contenders for the presidential nomination are going to express Trump-like feelings if pressed on the idea of a Muslim candidate for the office. God forbid (pardon the pun) they should be asked whether an atheist could be the president.
This kind of thinking really has no place in our public discourse, but here we are, well over 200 years into our history as a nation, and we have a large segment of the population still ignorant of what the founders sought to ensure in our Constitution. Freedom of religion and the right to be free of government-imposed religious beliefs were at the bedrock of the nation’s guiding principles.
I keep thinking, maybe hoping is the better word, that the Republican Party will rediscover its roots and join the twenty-first century. Instead, its leaders and would be leaders are caving to the pressure from the know-nothings and bigots who are represented by the candidacies of Trump and Carson. These are men who would be laughed out of a legitimate debate for the highest office in the land, because they are completely unqualified—not just in terms of positions previously held—but in terms of actual knowledge of the issues.
Trump believes Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers. Carson believes the earth is 5,000 years old. Neither has ever so much as proposed a piece of legislation, let alone led a government, even at the most local of levels. In that respect, neither is even as qualified as Sarah Palin was and is.
And yet, they lead the field in their party’s race for the presidential nomination. And the other dozen or so are so far behind that they need to play to the base on a simple question like whether a Muslim could be the nation’s president.