GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson took a dubious stand on American values on Sunday when he expressed his unwillingness to support a Muslim presidential candidate. Asked by NBC's Chuck Todd whether Islam is "consistent with the Constitution," Carson said no.
His campaign spokesman Doug Watts didn't help matters Sunday night when he told NBC News that "there is a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values."
"That can be disputed," Watts said. "That can be debated. But there's pretty strong evidence to that effect."
What really can't be disputed or debated is what the Constitution says -- and doesn't say -- about which faith or creed best represents its values. The Constitution does not permit a national religion, and the Framers took great care to draft the document in secular terms.
On the one hand is the First Amendment, which clearly states that the government cannot make any law "respecting an establishment of religion." In the words of the Supreme Court, this generally means that the government can't "set up a church," "pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another," or otherwise become entangled in religious affairs.
As University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone wrote in a Huffington Post blog last year, one reason the Framers created this "wall of separation between church and state" was that they viewed religion "not as a unifying force, but as a potentially divisive factor that threatened to undermine their goal of forming a more perfect union."
The founders' concerns help explain why another section of the First Amendment -- the one protecting the right to freely exercise any religion -- also stands as a barrier against official attempts to give primacy to one religion over another.
The Supreme Court put this right in its proper context in a 1985 decision (which references Islam by an older term):
At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Mohammedism or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.
The Constitution is also explicit about how "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court was presented with an opportunity to interpret that section of the Constitution, in the case of a Maryland official who was appointed by the governor but denied his commission because he refused to profess a belief in God under the state constitution.
The Supreme Court unanimously sided with the official, holding that Maryland's requirement violated the U.S. Constitution. Curiously, though, the court did not base its ruling on the "no religious test" clause, which comes in Article VI, but determined that the First Amendment was enough to decide the matter conclusively.
"We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion," wrote Justice Hugo Black for the court. "Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs."
Professor Stone observed that since that 1961 decision, it has been "accepted wisdom that governments in the United States cannot constitutionally deny individuals the right to hold public office because they do not believe in God."
By the same token, it should be accepted wisdom that Carson is the one on the wrong side of the Constitution when it comes to accepting a Muslim in the Oval Office. Nothing in our founding document stands in the way of a Muslim or any other believer or nonbeliever from serving in any public office.