When Republican Ben Carson declared Muslims unfit to be president, he crossed a line that historians say no major White House hopeful has breached since the 1940s – openly expressing prejudice.
Carson is not the first to appeal to voter bias, but he broke with a timeworn tradition of using coded language to avert political backlash.
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” Carson said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sept. 20. “I absolutely would not agree with that.”
Carson’s disparagement of Muslims came after months of derogatory remarks about women and Mexicans by rival Donald Trump, who nonetheless has remained the front-runner for the party nomination. Carson is in second place, some polls show.
Some Republican leaders, already worried about Trump’s insults, fear that Carson’s denigration of Muslims will further damage the party’s efforts to expand its base beyond older, conservative white voters.
A 2013 survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants – a key group for Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist – believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
Civil rights groups and some of Carson’s Republican rivals denounced the retired neurosurgeon, but he stands little risk of harm in the primaries. A 2013 survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants – a key group for Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist – believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
Historian Thomas S. Kidd, author of “American Christians and Islam,” said Carson was capitalizing on fear of Muslim terrorists. “But then to turn it into a blanket statement that Muslims in general can’t be full participants in the life of the republic – I do think that’s significant, and it’s alarming,” Kidd said.
Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett said the comments were justified because Islam calls for killing gay people (Muslim clerics say that’s untrue), and that’s incompatible with the Constitution (the Constitution says “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”).
Bennett also said that Carson, as an African-American, “dramatically expands the appeal of the Republican Party.”
Carson later said on CNN that a Muslim would “have to reject the tenets of Islam” to be president.
Presidential candidates typically take pains to avoid showing religious bias. When Republican Mitt Romney, a Mormon, ran in 2008 and 2012, some evangelical Christians were hostile toward his faith. One of his 2008 opponents, Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, apologized to Romney for asking a reporter, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, had to reassure Protestants that he would not take orders from the pope. But his main opponents, Hubert Humphrey in the primaries and Republican Richard Nixon in the general election, avoided the topic.
“Humphrey certainly didn’t say anything like what Carson said,” Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek recalled. Nixon didn’t need to stoke doubts about Kennedy’s faith because “there were plenty of people who were doing it for him,” he said.
Since World War II, historians say, the most openly prejudiced presidential candidate was Strom Thurmond, whose racism was unvarnished when he ran in 1948 as an independent.
“There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” the South Carolinian said.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, then a Democrat, was nearly as direct in his 1963 inaugural speech, pledging “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” But in his 1964 campaign for president, he was more guarded in appealing to whites outside the South at a time when many were uneasy about a new housing discrimination ban that would enable blacks to move into their neighborhoods.
“You may want to sell your house to someone with blue eyes and green teeth, and that’s all right,” he told a Maryland audience. “I don’t object. But you should not be forced to do it.”
After Romney’s loss in 2012, Republicans vowed to work harder to attract minority voters. The Republican National Committee released a scathing postmortem saying that “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
But Trump and Carson are benefiting from the uneasiness of many working-class whites as the nation becomes more diverse.
Their statements alarm strategist Henry Barbour, a co-author of the RNC report.
“When you say a Muslim’s not fit to be president of the United States, you’re a whole lot more than off message,” he said. “We need to stand on principle, but we don’t need to try to run folks off because they have different backgrounds than some traditional Republicans.”