Sometimes on the campaign trail candidates will say a thing that reveals something not just about them, but about the nation. One of those moments seems to have come over the issue of faith in presidential politics, after Ben Carson and Donald Trump each spoke about Muslims in America.
Sunday on NBC’s Meet The Press, Carson was asked by host Chuck Todd what could have been a pretty innocuous question: Should your faith matter to voters?
Carson began his response, “Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is.”
And then, when asked to clarify whether he believes Islam is “consistent with the Constitution,” Carson said, “No, I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
Those comments come after another GOP candidate, Donald Trump, failed to correct someone at a rally who suggested that President Obama is a Muslim.
“You know he’s not even an American,” a man in the audience at a Trump rally said last week. “But, anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question. When can we get rid of them?”
Trump replied, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things, and, you know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
After criticism, Trump doubled down, saying it’s not his responsibility to defend the president.
President Obama is not a Muslim. And yet Americans’ views of actual Muslims have been negative for a while. Besheer Mohamed, with the Pew Research Center, said negative views of Muslims in America “have been relatively stable” for years now.
When survey respondents are asked whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, close to half of Americans usually say the religion does. “It’s typically been in about the 40 to 50 percent range going back for about a decade,” Mohamed said.
And when asked if they would vote for a Muslim candidate, Mohamed added, “About 45 percent said they were less likely to vote for someone who is Muslim.”
The only group that ranked lower than Muslims on this question — atheists.
Amy Walter at Cook Political Report said playing on anti-Muslim sentiment could help Carson and Trump in the short run, but it could also hurt them down the road as they seek the GOP nomination.
“It’s something of a double-edged sword,” Walter said. “While it may get them some attention, and they may have some support within the Republican base, I think it makes it harder for those two candidates to show that they could be viable, national candidates in a general election.”
Walter added that Republicans are doing a great job of appealing to their base but warned that won’t always be enough.
“They do very, very well among white voters, among conservative voters, among voters who don’t live in urban areas, among men,” Walter said. “But those are also demographic groups that aren’t growing very quickly. In fact, they’re shrinking.”
The GOP has not done a good job so far of appealing to everybody else, she adds. This early campaign has highlighted that, as immigration hard lines and social issues have dominated.
“The big problem for the Republicans right now, as a national party,” Walter said, “is the fact that they’ve been on the wrong side of the demographic divide.”
So far, Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, hasn’t walked back his comments on whether a Muslim could or should be president.
Nihad Awad with the Council On American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said Carson’s comments should disqualify him from running.
“We ask Mr. Ben Carson to withdraw from the presidential race,” Awad said in a Monday press conference, “because he’s unfit to lead and his views are in contradiction with the United States Constitution.”
CAIR — and Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for that matter — hold up Article VI of the Constitution, which states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
CAIR added that it would give out free copies of the Quran to help others begin to understand what the Muslim faith is about. The group said it would send one of those Qurans to Ben Carson, personally.