Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views

Ben Carson confused a candidate’s professed faith with a candidate’s particular religious views, and he missed the significance of the “religious test” clause.

Ben Carson
Gage Skidmore

“Should a president’s faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters?” That’s what NBC’s Chuck Todd recently asked Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.

The obvious answer is that of course a candidate’s religious beliefs should matter to voters. For example, if a candidate wanted to outlaw homosexuality on the basis that it violates Biblical teachings, most Americans (including practically every leftist) would hold that such a religious belief properly disqualifies the candidate for office.

But that’s not what Carson said. Carson said a candidate’s faith should matter to voters “if it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America.” He added, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Carson’s answer introduced two serious confusions, and few of his critics have clearly sorted out the relevant issues. So let’s sort them out.

Carson first confused a candidate’s professed faith with a candidate’s particular religious views. There is a big difference between a candidate professing affiliation with some religious tradition and advocating particular faith-based policies.

Obviously, in today’s context, professed affiliation with any of the world’s major religions, such as Christianity (including its major variants such as Mormonism), Judaism, or Islam ought not automatically turn off a voter. Now, there are some religions, including Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses, that I regard as sufficiently kooky that I would never vote for a candidate who professed that religion. But, let’s face it, into the indefinite future nearly all elected officials in America will adhere to some religion or other, so we just can’t rule out candidates only because they profess religious affiliation.

I can imagine a future in which, rather than trump their religious affiliations, candidates run from religion—and that would be a huge improvement. Rather than candidates emphasizing their religious faith, they should say, in effect, “I’m culturally religious, but I don’t take religious beliefs very seriously, and I would never seek to impose religious beliefs by force of law.” Or they should openly profess no religious affiliation.

What voters should worry about are the particular religious beliefs a candidate holds and what those beliefs imply for the policies a candidate likely would pursue in office.

For example, to my mind, Carson’s faith-based rejection of evolution, by itself, disqualifies him for the presidency (even though he has distanced himself from “young earth” creationism).

Of course, Carson’s follow-up claim that every American Muslim wishes to impose Sharia law in America is absurd. Globally, Muslims express a vast range of political views. As I’ve expressed on Twitter, I’d rather vote for a nominal Muslim than for a fundamentalist Christian, other things equal.

Carson second confused what voters should take into account with what government should permit. As many of Carson’s critics have pointed out, the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for office.

At first it was unclear whether Carson was talking about a religious test or about advice for voters. But, in follow-up remarks, Carson said the president should be “sworn in on a stack of Bibles, not a Koran.” That’s pretty obviously the establishment of a religious test.

Unfortunately, some of Carson’s critics are hiding behind the “religious test” clause to pretend that all criticisms of a candidate’s religion are somehow off-limits. But obviously there is a huge difference between an individual voter judging a candidate’s religious views and government barring people of certain religions from running for office.

In this vein, for example, consider Bernie Sanders’s ridiculous comment: “You judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin, but on their ideas on what they stand for.” So, Sanders implies, a religion is akin to skin color, something inherited—which is obvious nonsense. A religion is a set of ideas pertaining to the nature of reality and man’s place in it, and, as such, it is something that individuals rightly judge in and out of the voting booth.

The left is missing a golden opportunity to make Carson drink his own medicine. If Muslim candidates should be judged—and rejected—for seeking to impose tenets of religious faith by force of law, then so should Christian candidates. And that standard would wipe out most of the current GOP contenders, including Carson himself.