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Carson's anti-Muslim comments part of a long tradition of bigotry

The notion that someone of a particular faith group is not suitable to be president is not new: Catholics once faced the same prejudice, and many Jews still do.
Ben Carson talks to pastors and community leaders. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson talks to pastors and community leaders during a meeting at the Bilingual Church in Baltimore, Maryland May 7, 2015. 

The contest for the Republican nomination for the presidency has already provided the media with plenty of fodder for political commentary and critique. Comments first by Donald Trump about Hispanic immigrants and now by Dr. Ben Carson about Muslims have rightfully been denounced -- including by most of the other GOP contenders.

These moments, particularly Carson’s remark on "Meet the Press" that he doesn’t think a Muslim should ever be president of the United States, can, however, be a vehicle for educating the American public, particularly many younger Americans who know little about our history. The notion that someone of a particular faith group is not suitable to be president or other positions of responsibility is not new. For the longest time, that was said about Catholic Americans. Papists, as they were sneeringly called by anti-Catholics, were not fit to run this country because it was said that they answered to a foreign power, the Vatican in Rome.

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Until 1928, there never was a Catholic nominee for president. When Al Smith, then governor of New York, was nominated by the Democratic Party, a bitter campaign was launched against his candidacy in parts of the country where there were few Catholics, on the grounds of his alleged foreign allegiance. 

More famously, John F. Kennedy experienced similar assaults when he ran for president in 1960, prompting him to declare that he had only one allegiance, to the United States of America. That statement, together with the way he conducted his campaign, eased the way and broke that important barrier.

"Ben Carson's comments are unfortunately just an updated version of a dishonorable tradition in American political life."'

More recently, former Gov. Mitt Romney experienced this when he ran the first time in 2008. He reportedly was astonished, not only by anti-Mormon rhetoric, but by claims that he could not be trusted to defend American values and principles.

And while there has never been a Jewish nominee of a party for president, Senator Joe Lieberman was criticized in certain circles when he ran on the Democratic ticket with Vice President Al Gore in 2000. And it is unfortunately too common for Jewish political figures to be accused of being more loyal to Israel than to the U.S. Indeed, we saw glimpses of this canard earlier this year when an interviewer implausibly asked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders whether his “dual citizenship,” a complete fabrication based on his Jewish faith, disqualified him to run for president.

Thus, Ben Carson's comments are unfortunately just an updated version of a dishonorable tradition in American political life. To our credit as a society, as reflected in the election of the first African-American president in 2008, we’ve come a long way in overcoming prejudice. But such accusations resonate among sectors of American society and must be taken seriously.

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Let’s be clear: the U.S. Constitution itself makes clear that any American citizen can run for president. There is no religious litmus test for candidates seeking political office, and that includes the highest office in the land. And constitutional protections have been at the core of protecting all kinds of minorities in this country. But more than constitutional arguments are needed. 

It is equally important to educate the public about how offensive such stereotypes are against any American of faith, or of no faith at all. The vast majority of people of different religions are as loyal to this country as those who descend from the original colonists on the Mayflower.

And it is critical to point out that the strength of this country lies in how we have overcome narrow prejudices to see things from a more open perspective.

The elections of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were instances where fear of the other was defeated by trust in our Democratic values. 

As the campaign season advances, remarks such as those by Ben Carson suggesting that one ethnic group – in this case, Muslims – all follow extremist interpretations of Islam certainly have no place in the discussion. Such statements have no basis in fact and fuel bigotry. 

Ben Carson’s comments remind us not only how far we have come, but also how far we have yet to go.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.