A few weeks ago, presidential candidate Ben Carson provoked a bit of a firestorm by declaring that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” This remark caused a good deal of criticism of Carson, including a particularly strong criticism that the remark itself disqualifies him to be president. This argument was made by the Huffington Post’s Melody Moezzi, in a piece entitled “Why Ben Carson Cannot be President.”
Moezzi points out quite correctly that Article VI of the Constitution forbids any religious tests for those who hold office under the government of the United States: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” She then goes on, however, to argue that since the president is required to take an oath to uphold the Constitution, Carson could not hold the office, since by his remarks he does not support the No Religious Tests Clause of the Constitution.
I have no intention here of defending Ben Carson’s remarks, but Moezzi’s argument is very silly. Carson said he would not advocate electing a Muslim president. One could disagree with this statement without making the mistake–as Moezzi does–of equating it with a repudiation of the No Religious Tests Clause. The Clause makes it unconstitutional for the law to require a person to be of a certain religion in order to hold office. It does not, however, prevent voters from taking religion into account in their voting, or leaders from making arguments about who should be elected on the basis of such considerations. It would, in any case, be impossible to enforce such a prohibition.
One could figure this out by thinking about the other portions of the Constitution that deal with the question of qualifications for office. The Constitution, for example, says that to be president one must have reached 35 years of age. That’s the minimum legal qualification. But it in no way prevents voters from taking age into account in casting their ballots. A person could advocate as a rule of prudence not voting for any person under the age of 50 for the presidency, and that would not be a violation of the Constitution.
This actually came up in the previous election cycle, when an Evangelical raised a concern about voting for Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon. He, too, was roundly criticized as somehow violating the No Religious Tests Clause. And the criticism then was just as off-base. Arguments like these might be inconsistent with, say, the contemporary American understanding of public pluralism. But that is not the same thing as violating Article VI of the Constitution.
And it is worth keeping this in mind, no matter what you think about what Ben Carson said. We have a tendency to try to make the Constitution support all of our moral and political positions, but in many cases it does not. We should resist that tendency, because we can’t have Constitutional government without respecting the Constitution as having a meaning distinct from our own opinions.