Ben Carson (whom I do not support for president) recently infuriated the left, its lapdog mainstream media, and perhaps a third of the American people that follows current events. Everybody knows why: Dr. Carson declared that a Muslim should not be president of the United States. Infuriated they were—if you know anything about Furies.
And now syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer has weighed in on the Carson controversy in no uncertain terms writing: “His [Carson’s] reason is that Islam is incompatible with the Constitution. On the contrary. Carson is incompatible with a Constitution that explicitly commands that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States’”
Say what you like, you can’t get much clearer than that.
But since I am here to say what I like, I believe Mr. Krauthammer, with whom I generally agree, is wrong. Don’t misunderstand my point. The Constitution says exactly what Mr. Krauthammer insists it does. But his argument doesn’t end there. He goes on to say that, in spite of Dr. Carson’s demurral that he “was not calling for a legal disqualification of a Muslim” for office, “The Constitution is not just a legal document. It is a didactic one. It doesn’t just set limits to power; it expresses a national ethos.”
Something dangerous lurks behind Mr. Krauthammer’s understanding. First of all, the Constitution doesn’t express an ethos in the usual sense; it expresses something that had already fermented in the minds of the new Americans from the Declaration through the years of revolutionary struggle: the new republic would not, unlike England and most of Europe, establish a powerful alliance of secular and religious powers.
Doubtless, some men did not find this wise, but it’s what the Founders did. However, the constitution did not, as it were, preach this dictum because it didn’t need preaching. It needed political scaffolding.
States might do as they pleased regarding religion, but not the national government (as the Founders preferred to call it.) The Constitution’s ratification with the glaring absence of an established church clause settled the point for men in the late eighteenth century as it does today.
One ought to see from this reality that the Constitution is first and last a political document, an enumeration of limited powers. Unquestionably, a theory lies behind the document, but its purpose is utterly practical. Consider its salient features: the three branches of government; the careful distribution of power between them; practical guidelines for impeachment and trial; protocols for intercourse with foreign states; rules for judicial and executive appointments; the regulation of commerce between the states.
In this structure Madison’s genius was not overtly theoretical or, as an
extension of that, didactic but political; he saw the liberty of a flawed section of humanity, the American people, best served by playing off various interests against one another. Madisonian wisdom declared that as long as the branches jealously guarded their power—and as long as the states did likewise—the experiment in republican government would stand more than a fair chance of success.
What is the danger in Krauthammer’s “didactic” premise? Chiefly, I think, it invites a vague interpretation of the Constitution at the expense of prudent execution of the law. More than a little mischief has been done to our system of limited government and separation of powers by men who somehow discovered hidden teachings in laws that augmented and expanded power that had clearly been limited at ratification.
It is almost needless to say that the courts, the Supreme Court especially, have been especially harmful in this enterprise, discovering rights to privacy and applications of the general welfare clause that make a mockery of what the Founders so carefully and painfully devised and the people approved: the enumerated powers and the Bill of Rights. Yet the courts, however much blame lies with them, always found a cadre of willing accomplices in both the executive and legislative branches.
Treating the Constitution as a fifty-fifty business of didacticism and practicality opens the door for those who would discover penumbrae that weaken clear political limits on power—penumbrae often hiding in the dark depths of its purported ethos.
Ben Carson’s suspicion of a hypothetical Muslim presidential candidate did no harm to the Constitution as written. Certainly the Founders understood that the preservation of the American order might require prudential—that is to say, practical and political—consideration of who is fit for office as extraordinary times dictate.
No one thirty years ago would have batted an eye at the question posed to Dr. Carson. Today, however, when we are confronted by a religion advocating a worldwide Caliphate, which condones lying to advance its totalitarian dream, we would be mad as a people to tolerate a candidate who could not openly renounce such a creed. Can a Muslim do so? Can we trust one who does?
Ben Carson was right.