On Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson said that being a Muslim is incompatible with being president of the United States. By Monday, his campaign had said that being a Muslim is incompatible with being an American, period.
"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that," the retired pediatric neurosurgeon said on NBC's Meet the Press. Asked whether he thinks Islam is consistent with the U.S. Constitution, Carson said, "No, I don't — I do not."
Later that same day, Carson campaign spokesperson Doug Watts went even further, telling NBC News that although "[Carson] has great respect for the Muslim community... there is a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values. That can be disputed, that can be debated, but there's pretty strong evidence to that effect."
The backlash: The candidate's comments drew sharp and immediate criticism from Muslim American politicians and advocacy organizations.
"The freedom of religion is a founding principle of our nation," a spokesman for Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, one of only two Muslim congressmen, told Mic. "Our Constitution gives this right to all Americans — including elected officials. For Ben Carson, Donald Trump, or any other Republican politician to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for office is out of touch with who we are as a people. It's unimaginable that the leading GOP presidential candidates are resorting to fear mongering to benefit their campaigns, and every American should be disturbed that these national figures are engaging in and tolerating blatant acts of religious bigotry."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America's largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization, went even further in its condemnation, calling for Carson to step out of the race. "It's interesting that an individual who is trashing the Constitution is accusing American Muslims of somehow not following the Constitution," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told CNN. "If an individual clearly doesn't abide by or care for the Constitution, I think that's a disqualifier in terms of running for the nation's highest elected office. So we're calling for him to withdraw from the race."
Carson's not alone. As we have come to expect, the controversy traces back to front-runner Donald Trump. At a campaign event in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thursday night, the billionaire swapped out his typical stump speech for the real-life version of a Reddit AMA, instructing the assembled crowd to ask him anything they wanted. "You can make them vicious, violent, horrible questions, even though you're sort of, probably, on live television," he said.
Trump didn't have to wait long for just such a question. The first person to speak, after a digression in which he declared that President Barack Obama is a clandestine Muslim and that Muslims are "a problem in this country," asked about terrorist training camps, "where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?" To which Trump replied, "We're going to be looking at a lot of different things," not bothering to correct the man's incorrect assertion that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim. "And, you know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and many other things."
The Trump campaign, facing criticism for Trump's unwillingness to refute the man's conspiracy theories regarding the president's faith and nationality (both of which have been disproved in exhausting detail, much to Trump's humiliation), later clarified that Trump, no stranger to ethnic calumnies, understood "them" as referring to training camps, rather than the roughly 3 million Muslims currently living in the United States.
Trump's misstep may have contaminated the rest of the Republican presidential candidate field by proximity. The incident sparked media scrutiny of what CAIR has dubbed the casual Islamophobia of the Republican Party platform, prompting Carson's question on Meet the Press and the subsequent demand by CAIR and others for him to drop out of the race. Carson is currently polling at 14% among likely Republican voters nationwide, putting him in third place in the Republican primary field, second only to Trump and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
CAIR, for its part, views Carson's comments even more harshly than Trump's. "With Donald Trump, I mean, it's in the same category, but with Donald Trump it's just run-of-the mill bigotry," Hooper told CNN. "With Carson, it's an actual rejection of the clear language of the Constitution."
Red meat for the Republican base: Although Muslims may be outraged by Carson's comments, the invective is a winning issue with a large portion of the Republican Party's political base, a group at the forefront of every candidate's mind ahead of primary season.
According to a CNN/ORC poll conducted earlier this month, 29% of Americans say they think the president is a Muslim, including 43% of Republicans and 54% of Trump supporters. According to a more expansive survey conducted by Gallup, one in two Republicans describe themselves as possessing "a great deal of prejudice towards Muslims."
As the issue of religious liberty becomes a larger fixture on the Republican campaign trail — a result of Republicans' response to the legalization of same-sex marriage — candidates who implicitly argue for the religious testing of political candidates risk being accused of hypocrisy. For example, Carson himself is one of the Republican candidates who has argued aggressively for the right of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis to exercise her religion freely, even if that exercise contradicted her oath of office. "When [Davis] took the job, the Supreme Court hadn't made this ruling," Carson told a Florida CBS affiliate. "If they had, she might not have taken this job. So I think they have a responsibility to accommodate her."
Carson, for his part, is willing to extend just such an "accommodation" to Muslims candidates — so long as they forsake any tenants of Islam itself. If a Muslim candidate for office "publicly rejected all the tenants of Sharia and lived a life consistent with that," Carson told The Hill, "then I wouldn't have any problem."