Ben Carson the Republican presidential hopeful may have blown it by saying that it would be unconstitutional for a Muslim to be president of the USA, attracting the opprobrium of liberal commentators. He was, of course, wrong and ignorant of his own US Constitution which specifically excludes any religious bar to the office of President. It was pretty mild fare by comparison with the anti-Muslim propaganda that a number of my constituents continue to bombard me with. This is usually stuff they have picked up from dodgy websites and chain emails. In effect, they insist that the only authentic interpretation of Islam is as a totalitarian and violent ideology, ignoring the experience of over a thousand years of, for the most part, tolerant and peaceful co-existence.
The interaction of politics and religion has been an important factor in our own constitutional development. Lord Halifax in his Letter to a Dissenter sought to point out to Protestants opposed to the Anglican establishment, the dangers of making common cause with the papist tyrant James II, against the Church of England. Warning them that “infallibility and liberty are the two most contrary things in the world”. In this respect, returning to US politics for a moment, it is interesting to note that John F Kennedy, when he ran for president, made statements disavowing his Roman Catholicism, and insisting it would not unduly influence him as President.
Our own nation, notwithstanding its established Protestant religion, has evolved to be perhaps the most tolerant in the world of religious diversity. Equally, the USA, despite its Constitution defining itself as a ‘Nation under God’, is also a haven of toleration and diversity. I think that this earns us the right to comment critically on regimes that are failing to protect the rights of religious minorities, whether they be Islamic states accommodating increasing conservatism, or those in Israel wanting to define it as a Jewish state, with an aggressive settler movement determined to turn Palestine into a biblical theme park.
Most religions are benign, and all of them are a bit wacky, even my own. As Origen, one of the early church fathers pointed out ‘the more absurd it is, the more I believe it’. When it comes to the wacky stakes however, there is plenty of competition: Scientology; the Moonies; but is there anything to beat Mormonism?
Well, perhaps Atheism?