A call for civic and religious literacy and interreligious engagement

(9/20/2015) Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson’s controversial comments stating that a Muslim should not be the President of the United States and that a Muslim president would not uphold the Constitution demonstrate that not only is he unfamiliar with the philosophy that underpins the formation of the United States but that he also lacks an understanding of the very Constitution he claims to defend.

America’s Founding Fathers had the wisdom and foresight, and the experience of the long history of religious warfare in Europe, to inspire and lead them to establish a nation founded on the concept of religious freedom. Now, more than 200 years later, their views on religious liberty remain just as relevant, if not more so. The Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendment state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The clauses are usually cited as the basis for the proper relationship between church and state. They lay the foundation for a legal principle of government neutrality in matters of religion. Importantly, the clauses also protect the right of religious freedom and practice. This constitutionally protected right ensures not only freedom of religious belief and practice, but also demands that people of all religions be treated equally. Additionally, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution specifically states that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification of any office or public trust under the United States.”

As early as 1797, President John Adams affirmed this view specifically in regard to Muslims in signing the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

We urge Dr. Carson and other fellow Americans to learn more about the history and founding of this great country, which, based on the wisdom of its Founding Fathers, guarantees the right of every American to practice their faith, hold public office, and aspire for the highest office of the land.

Dr. Carson’s rhetoric is disturbingly reminiscent of the attacks on John F. Kennedy as a Catholic when he ran for President in 1960. There were many false claims that his religious faith stood in contradiction to his loyalty to the country and its democratic principles. Similar statements have been made in recent history about African Americans, Jews, women, and a host of other groups.

We would like to educate Dr. Carson and others about the relationship between Islam and democracy. Principles of equal representation and respect for religious pluralism were early hallmarks of Muslim societies, and despite modern examples of Muslim-majority countries doing a poor job of upholding such rights, the reality is that the majority of Muslims, especially but not only in the United States, hold views of their faith and its values that are eminently compatible with American democracy. Dr. Carson’s words do not target any potential Muslim presidential candidate (there aren’t any) but they do serve to further isolate and demonize a community already under added scrutiny. In this Islamophobic environment, words such as Dr. Carson’s have real-life effects upon the lives of American Muslims, especially students who are often the target of bullying.

Such ignorance from a person who is a serious contender for the Presidency of the United States reveals the urgent need for public education and interreligious engagement to dispel such lack of understanding about world religions and cultures and about Islam and Muslims in particular. This engagement and education is precisely what ING has focused on for 23 years. Dr. Carson’s inappropriate comments only inspire us, and, we hope, the community of people of all faiths, to redouble our efforts to promote interreligious and intercultural understanding and pluralism.

ING and Affiliates
Silicon Valley Interreligious Council
Hindu American Foundation
Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County Governing Board
Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley

Organizations which have also released their own statements include the following:

Hindu American Foundation
Anti-Defamation League
Jewish Council for Public Affairs