Thus far, the Republican presidential sweepstakes has resembled a video game, where the contenders shoot each other with invective, and the score is tallied by opinion polls and the size of supporter donations. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s score appeared to be approaching zero last week when he declared he was ending his quest for the presidency.
Retired neurosurgeon and Christian motivational speaker Ben Carson, on the other hand, is rising in both categories. Support apparently increased after he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Asked by host Chuck Todd if he thought Islam was consistent with the Constitution, the Republican candidate said, “No, I don’t.”
Of course, the Constitution contains no religious test for president. Thus, in both its historical context and as measured by common decency, Carson’s statement was bigoted and incorrect. But when viewed in the context of businessman Donald Trump’s continued stirring of the “birther” pot regarding President Barack Obama’s origins, Carson appears to be pandering to a segment of the Republican Party and the conservative camp that is paranoid about Muslims in America. Although we have seen this paranoia before — directed at one time or another to Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Italian, Irish and German immigrants and African-Americans — it remains a disquieting phenomenon and needs to stop.
The stakes in the Republican primaries are high, which may explain some of the commando tactics of the contenders. But those actions have consequences. For example, we have seen some of the themes of the presidential primary competition being played out by hardline conservatives in Congress, including the most recent threat to shut down the government if they cannot cut off funding of Planned Parenthood. While we understand the sentiment of the “pro-life” movement, we question the judgment of promoting a government shutdown over the dispute. Fortunately, it appears that the Republican leadership in Congress is working to craft a bill that will avoid the unnecessary confrontation.
There are those who see the xenophobia of Carson and Trump and the social wars in the halls of Congress as separate phenomena. We don’t. Each has its roots in a political extremism that is affecting political debate, and that’s not good. We realize that extremism makes good press. And in a crowded primary battle, the noisiest and most extreme positions seem to attract the most attention. But at what price?
Each time a major political voice expresses an extreme position, we seem to lose a bit of our humanity. While scaled-back rhetoric may not have the same shock effect, it will help focus the debate and make us all feel a little better about the process, as we address the merits of our differences.