The problem isn’t that Ben Carson wouldn’t vote for a Muslim president.
The problem is that few other Republicans would, either.
The problem isn’t that Donald Trump dignified the insane anti-Islam rants of some random crank.
The problem is that a massive chunk of all GOP voters share those same toxic views.
It would be bad enough if the men representing one of America’s two major political parties happened to be a bunch of xenophobic cretins. But it’s worse than that because, as it turns out, a plurality of their fans are, too.
In other words, the GOP primary’s rank bigotry isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.
Nor is the party’s contempt for certain Americans limited to Muslims. At various junctures, Republican candidates have demonstrated robust, unchained hostility toward immigrants, women, homosexuals and unbelievers, among others. And their supporters have followed them every step of the way.
Not all of them, of course. Perhaps not even a majority.
But if there is any measurable difference between Democrats and Republicans, it is that the latter are significantly more likely to harbor open suspicion and disapproval of minorities—individually and collectively—on the basis of their minority status.
In a recent Gallop poll, we find that while 73 percent of Democratic respondents would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be Muslim, only 45 percent of Republican respondents would do the same. Similarly, although 85 percent of Democrats would vote for a gay candidate, only 61 percent of Republicans would as well. For an atheist candidate, the party split was 64 percent versus 45 percent, respectively.
While those numbers are nothing for either faction to brag about, the gulf between the two is unmistakable, and it leads us to a fairly obvious conclusion: As it currently stands, the Republican Party is a one-stop shop for paranoia, hatred and prejudice toward anyone who seems even slightly foreign to some preconceived, mythical idea of what makes someone a “real American.”
Yes, many self-identified Republicans are sane, decent folks. Yes, there are many components of GOP dogma that have nothing to do with shunning minorities and other undesirables. Yes, conservatism itself is still a perfectly legitimate means of thinking about the world.
And yet I wonder: Why are there any “moderate Republicans” left? At this point, isn’t that phrase a contradiction in terms?
Case in point: If you happen to think that all Muslims are terrorists and all gays are perverts, then it makes perfect sense that you would align with today’s GOP. Their values are your values.
But if you don’t think those things—if you find the denigration of entire classes of people to be juvenile, unattractive and dangerous—then why would you throw in with a political party that loudly and proudly does?
Notwithstanding whatever else you might believe—say, about taxes or foreign policy—why would you join arms with an organization that—at least in its presidential candidates—has adopted enmity and ignorance as its defining characteristics? What’s the appeal in belonging to a gang so fundamentally unappealing? After all, you can always vote for Republicans without being one yourself.
The explanation, I suppose, is roughly the same as why so many Catholics remain committed to their church, in spite of its history of raping innocent children and using every means necessary to cover it up.
That is: Many people are quite skilled at keeping utterly contradictory ideas in their heads and somehow still getting through the day. They compartmentalize, embracing virtue while ignoring or overlooking vice.
And in the end, it is religion where the Republican Party exerts its most breathtaking feats of hypocrisy and self-deception.
In fact, Ben Carson’s infamous rumination on Meet on the Press about the dangers in electing a Muslim president contained the most telling statement any candidate has yet made on the subject of mixing religion and politics.
To the question, “Should a president’s faith matter?” Carson responded, “I guess it depends on what that faith is.” As far as most Republican candidates are concerned, that’s exactly right.
The GOP fashions itself as the champion of religious freedom—defender of the clause in the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Don’t believe it for a minute. The GOP would love Congress to make a law respecting the establishment of religion, and the only religion its leaders are interested in exercising freely is their own.
When that ridiculous Kentucky clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because she is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, she informed the media that “God’s law” takes precedence over man’s law, and when certain Republicans defended her willful disregard of the latter, they defined her “struggle” precisely in terms of a religious war.
How often we have heard—from nearly every major and minor candidate—that Christianity is “under attack” and being “criminalized” because those who don’t believe in gay marriage—ostensibly for Biblical reasons—now have to grin and bear the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled against those beliefs. Mike Huckabee, the self-appointed leader of the cause, said, “No man […] has the right to redefine the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”
I wonder: What exactly is the difference between that statement and Sharia law? The latter, of course, is the idea—popular in the Middle East—of running a legal system based on teachings in the Quran and other Islamic holy works, rather than on any precepts devised by man.
In principle, there is no difference at all. Huckabee and the king of Saudi Arabia apparently agree that the word of God is more important than the rule of law, and that an individual’s own religious convictions can and should overrule any rule that comes into conflict with them.
And yet—amazingly—it is these same cultural conservatives who attack and condemn Sharia law at every opportunity, insisting that some nefarious Islamic cabal is secretly plotting to bring Sharia to the United States and is this close to succeeding and—my God!—what a horrible world it would be if America became an oppressive, Bronze Age theocracy.
Read those last few paragraphs again and tell me this isn’t the most spectacular double standard in recent American politics. Taking them at their word, GOP leaders evidently think that religion in the public square is both good and bad, that holy books are simultaneously more and less authoritative than the Constitution, and that Christians—who represent 70 percent of the U.S. population—are under threat, while Muslims—who are less than 1 percent—are on the verge of taking over the whole damn country.
The logistical cartwheels in this reasoning are enough to give you whiplash. The term “Schrödinger’s cat” springs curiously to mind.
In reality, though, the thinking is straightforward and simple, and it’s exactly like Ben Carson said: Christianity good, Islam bad. God is great, except when his name is Allah.
Once you convince yourself—as Carson and company have—that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with living in a free society like ours and that no individual Muslim could possibly adopt America’s values as his or her own—a self-evidently absurd idea—then it becomes quite easy to make comically hypocritical statements like the above and somehow think you’re being principled and consistent.
But these guys aren’t. They believe in religious freedom when the religion is Christianity and when the “freedom” involves preventing gay people from leading fulfilling lives. I’m sure the irony of the latter will sink in sooner or later, although we probably shouldn’t hold our breaths.
In the meantime, we would all do well to remind ourselves that freedom means nothing if it only applies to certain people and that the United States, for all its religious citizens, does not have an official state religion and does not take sides in religious fights.
This did not happen by accident. In the fall of 1801, a group of Connecticut Baptists sent an urgent letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, pleading for protection against religious tyranny by a rival sect. Jefferson’s famous response, which guaranteed such protection, intoned that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God” and that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment amounted to “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
As Christopher Hitchens used to say: Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.