ISLAM CHALLENGES OUR CONCEPT
OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION
Running for President in 1960, John F. Kennedy gave an address before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Only the second Catholic to receive the presidential nomination of a major party, Kennedy was well aware that religion had been a key factor in defeating Alfred E. “Al” Smith, the New York Governor who was the Democrats’ candidate in 1928.
JFK went to great lengths to assure his audience (which included some of the most prominent leaders of American Protestantism) that his Catholic faith would not constrain his decision-making, should he be elected…
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
Kennedy’s robust defense of church-state separation was crucial in overcoming public reservations about electing a Catholic President (the year before, a Gallup survey had found 25 percent outright opposed).
His words have not been without controversy over the years, however. Some people read them as merely affirming our constitutional prohibition of an established national church. While others detect in them the seeds of what has become a deep distrust of religion in some ideological circles: the idea that active church participation is an impediment to evenhanded performance of public duty or that a faith-focused perspective is antithetical to the crafting of fair policies.
Kennedy’s take has become the standard line among politicians, especially those of leftward inclination. Certain Catholic pols in particular have used it as the basis for that handy formula…
“I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I can’t force my beliefs on anybody else.”
Which is why JFK’s words are less appreciated among conservatives.
As recently as 2012, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (himself a Catholic) told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that when he read Kennedy’s speech he wanted to “throw up.” (Santorum later admitted to conservative talk personality Laura Ingraham that he regretted the “throw up” line, but he hadn’t changed his opinion that Kennedy’s message was a negative influence on American politics.)
Such controversy aside, religion hasn’t been much of a limiting factor in presidential politics since 1960. There was concern in some quarters about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, but I don’t think it counted much in his loss to Barack Obama. Probably more dead people voted Democrat in Chicago than orthodox Christians refused to vote for Mitt.
Religion is back in the presidential spotlight now, though, with Ben Carson’s remark on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that a Muslim should not be President. After receiving a burst of negative media reaction, Carson has tried to explain that Islam is a unified religious / moral / political system that sees no area of life as beyond Koranic influence and Sharia law.
His point is simple and quite logical: Our concept of government as a worldly concern separated from faith is more than just a proposition with which Islam disagrees. The very idea approaches blasphemy because it attempts to remove human action from the supremacy of God.
How could a Muslim President who is committed to traditional Islamic principles function under the rules and expectations of secular democracy? How, in sincerity, could that candidate even consider taking the oath of office that would bind him to uphold the Constitution in which secular democracy is enshrined?
Any Muslim aspiring to the White House would have to set aside adherence to the tenets of his faith to an extent that is not required of observant Christians or Jews. Indeed, he might have to embrace a view of Islam that is something close to heretical, at least by the measure of traditional Muslim beliefs. If he couldn’t do this, his ability to lead a secular government — and his loyalty to it — would always be suspect.
This is what Carson was trying to say. Unfortunately, he didn’t get his point across smoothly — which probably reflects his lack of ease in today’s sound-bite-oriented media environment.
What did come across was the good doctor’s obvious assumption that there aren’t too many practicing Muslims who would be willing to make such a secular leap. And this is what brought on all the flack.
Awkwardly phrased as Carson’s remark might have been, I don’t think it was a gaff. As I speculated in an addendum to my last post…
“Carson saw an opportunity to rise above his usual, low-key, well-modulated tone and steal a little bit of the bravado that’s worked so well for GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.”
Although I did express a reservation…
“I’m not sure it works for someone [Carson] who usually comes off as everybody’s wise uncle.”
Seems like I was wrong, however, and his attempt worked quite well.
Carson’s poll numbers are up. His position as the number-two contender has been strengthened. And he’s closing in fast on The Donald.
Clearly this incident has tapped into the discomfort which people feel about the presence of Muslims in the U.S. While public attitudes have never risen to the frantic level of “Islamophobia” which Muslim spokesmen tell us is rampant in the land, anxiety has been growing since the attacks of 9/11. It’s been kicked up a notch by the Obama Administration’s pledge to accept a portion of the refugees now inundating Europe.
People are savvy enough to realize that those heart-rending images of frightened and haggard Middle-East families are only part of the story. Amid the desperate human wave there are plenty of fit and hostile-looking young men. Indeed, the so-called Islamic State has boasted that this vast migration is carrying the forces of conquest into the heart of the Christian West.
They’ll be coming to our shores soon. Count on it.
The all-embracing character of Islam poses a special challenge to our traditional American understanding of religious freedom. While devout Christians and Jews might not compartmentalize their faith and moral views to the extent desired by the anti-religious Left, we have always drawn a line between the sacred and the profane. Recognition that some things belong to God and others to Caesar is what has made church-state separation possible.
Islam threatens to undo all of that. As I observed in an essay written for the online journal. Ethika Politika, back in May of 2014…
“It remains to be seen whether the newest wave of Muslim immigrants ultimately will buy into The American Idea, become fully assimilated, and play a constructive role in the progress of our nation, as earlier Muslim arrivals have and other immigrant groups before them….
“The cultural gulf may simply be so vast that in order for them to embrace us, Muslims would have to become, in essence, less Muslim. That’s a prospect we can’t expect would be easy for them to accept….”
Ben Carson has helped to bring these questions to the fore, and his reservations about a Muslim President should be discussed earnestly. Media folk are wrong to fall back on their customary reaction to controversial ideas expressed by Republicans: seizing the gotcha moment.
None of this is to suggest that Muslims must be excluded from political life. Many are indeed capable of making the secular leap. Islam is by no means monolithic; there has always been a tension between traditionalism and secularization.
But it is not unreasonable — nor is it bigoted — for voters to examine the piety of Muslim candidates as a factor in considering them for office.
This is a prescription which Dr. Carson would agree makes sense.
One of my favorite pundits, Charles Krauthammer, called Ben Carson’s remark about the unacceptability of a Muslim as President “morally outrageous.” But conservative writer Andrew C. McCarthy was having none of it…
“Carson did not call for the enactment of a law disqualifying Muslims from serving in public office, which is what the [Constitution’s] religious-test clause actually forbids,” McCarthy wrote in National Review. “He merely offered his personal opinion that it would not be wise for Americans to elect a Muslim president.”
McCarthy made several points similar to mine — though more forcefully. Give his defense of Ben Carson a read at…
Religion reporter Amy Julia Harris believes that Muslims are judged more harshly than followers of other religions, especially in regard to terrorism. Writing for the lefty Reveal News, she cites a 2011 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute which found that…
“Americans are much more willing to say Muslim extremists who commit violence in the name of Islam are really Muslims than they are to say violent people who kill in the name of God are truly Christians.”
It’s an argument that’s made in this graphic circulating currently on Facebook. And while it’s slightly aside from the point (and to tell the truth, I find neither the argument nor the graphic all that convincing), it still has a certain relevance. Because it suggests that Americans may be making unfair assumptions about how Muslims would behave in political office.
Read Harris’ thoughts at…
If you didn’t catch it when it first appeared last year, take a few minutes to read my essay, “Muslims, Secularists, and The American Idea” on Ethika Politika…