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What Ben Carson Doesn’t Get

I don’t usually expect to hear a discussion of spiritual practices in the check-out line at Target, but that’s exactly what happened this week in a southwest suburb of Chicago.  The conversation was between the cashier and a customer.  The customer was about thirty, shepherding three young children while buying school clothes.  She was Muslim.  The cashier was also about thirty.  While punching in numbers and bagging purchases she revealed that she is Jewish. 

“You have a fast day coming up,” the Jewish cashier said to her Muslim customer.  “So do we.”  Thus was launched a comparison of Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha fasting customs including very idiosyncratic strategies for eating in advance to sustain one through the long day without food.  I don’t think they learned these from either the rabbi or the imam!  But no matter. It was a remarkable, relaxed, and uplifting moment in a week that began at a very different and dismal place in the world of interreligious engagement.

Sunday morning presidential candidate Ben Carson lit up the weekly talk shows with his absurd contention that a Muslim shouldn’t be elected President of the United States.  His tortured rationale for this unconstitutional assertion seemed to be an assumption that a Muslim president would promote a Wahhabist or Salafist version of Islam utterly at odds with prevailing American – read conservative Christian – cultural norms.  Who wants the United States to look like Saudi Arabia?  He eventually softened things a bit by suggesting that perhaps a Muslim could be president if he (I doubt he had she in mind) agreed to abandon some of the core tenets of Islam.  Right.  And you, Ben, can be president as long as you don’t act like a Christian.  Maybe if you’d act more like a Christian. .  .  .   But I digress.

Dr. Carson’s competitors in the Republican vaudeville show offered the array of responses we’ve become accustomed to.   A few were courageous enough to a present an unambiguous rebuke.  Most were more cautious, holding the proverbial finger to the wind to see how the voters would respond.  Sadly, though perhaps predictably given the primary dynamics, Carson seems to be doing just fine.  Meanwhile, when a questioner of Donald Trump revived the tired notion of Obama as Muslim at a campaign event this week, Trump let it slide, resolutely refusing to correct the man.  Truth, I guess, is such a campaign liability.

The day after my Target visit the Seminary hosted a visit from Dr. Michael Smith, chief chaplain of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  This born again, Southern Baptist educated Christian made a special point in his sermon of acknowledging his Jewish and Muslim chaplain colleagues who would be guiding incarcerated women and men through their religious observances this week.  He then went on to offer a ringing defense of the critical importance of religious freedom in the ministry of these prison chaplains.  He closed with a pointed reminder for all of us:  “A person has a right to go to prison for his own religious beliefs; he does not have the right to put another person in prison for her or his religious beliefs.”

Neither Dr. Smith nor my two Target friends were, I suspect, intending a direct response to Ben Carson.  But the implied rebuttal was loud and clear.  I doubt that the Target cashier and customer are qualified to be president of the United States.  Neither is probably old enough to satisfy the Constitutional requirement anyway.  But I do know this:  I like their version of America a lot more than Dr. Carson’s.  Perhaps if he spent more time in Target and less in the echo chamber of carefully calculated campaign events, he’s start to get it.

                      John H. Thomas

                      September 24, 2015


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