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Religious intolerance, then and now

Ben Carson embarrassed himself badly over the weekend when he said on "Meet The Press" that he opposed having a Muslim serve as president of the United States, saying that Islam was not "consistent" with the Constitution — although he did allow that perhaps a Muslim could serve in Congress under certain circumstances.

That's outrageous, but it's not so far out of the mainstream for Republican presidential contenders of late. It's also sort of ironic given that nearly half of Republican voters think Dr. Carson's nightmare — a Muslim in the White House — has already happened. At least 43 percent of GOP voters mistakenly think President Barack Obama is a Muslim, according to a recent CNN poll (it's 54 percent if you believe the earlier findings of a Public Policy Polling survey).

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One can, in part, thank Donald Trump for the persistence of that bit of misinformation. Prior to the last presidential election, he drew quite a bit of attention for claiming the Hawaii native Mr. Obama was a Muslim born outside the United States, a campaign that eventually caused the president to produce his birth certificate. And Mr. Trump is sticking with it, refusing to correct a questioner at a recent New Hampshire campaign event who asserted that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.

Dr. Carson's Sunday morning gaffe was so egregious, however, that it drew rebukes from at least two fellow candidates with strong ties to evangelicals and extremely conservative views on matters of foreign policy and the military, Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, the former pointing out that the Constitution bans a religious test for public office and the latter noting, correctly, that "America is an idea, not owned by a particular religion."

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Why in the 21st century could anyone believe that one's religious affiliation can make that person ineligible for elected office? This is territory covered beautifully by John F. Kennedy almost exactly 55 years ago when some had questioned whether a Catholic could serve in the same office. Appearing before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he addressed his Catholicism head-on saying that his belief in the separation of church and state was absolute.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instruction on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all," he said in his Sept. 12, 1960 speech to Protestant ministers.

Has anyone ever put the American ideal or religious freedom better? Yet those words seem to have gotten lost in places like Sunday morning talk show studios and political rallies in New Hampshire and, of course, in Rowan County, Ky., where a court clerk somehow believed that her religion trumped the Constitution. It does not, yet that clerk, Kim Clark, and her intolerant views toward marriage equality (as well as her misreading of the Constitution) have garnered much support from that same field of GOP presidential contenders.

Today it's Muslims, gays or transgender individuals who would be denied the rights of U.S. citizenship because they do not follow a favored religious view, but who will it be tomorrow? That's a question to ponder Tuesday as Pope Francis arrives in Washington, D.C. for his first visit to the United States, more than a half-century after the U.S. elected its first (and still only) Catholic president.

It's not hard to find extreme religious views that many Americans will find objectionable around the globe; they are certainly not limited to Islam. Still, there's another presidential quote that is worth remembering: "Islam is peace." Who said it? That would be President George W. Bush who took great pains to make clear that the U.S. was not at war with Islam in September of 2001 but with those who have twisted its teachings to support evil and war.

Religious intolerance is not tolerable whether its directed against Catholics or Muslims. Dr. Carson has demonstrated his disdain for religious freedom. Voters should be asking themselves whether someone so antagonistic toward a founding principle of this country is the one who should be disqualified from its highest office.

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