Party of Religious Liberty Botches Debate on Religion and the Constitution

Remember when the presidential election, or the Republican primary, at least, was going to be about religious liberty? About how Obergefell v. Hodges eviscerated the religious freedom of “Bible-believing Christians,” who would need the big, bad overreaching government’s protection from two women wanting their wedding photographed, or from two men ordering a gorgeous cake for a reception? Remember how Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz helped turn Kim Davis into a heroine of religious freedom? Remember when insurance coverage for birth control was the most ominous, most litigated, most talked about “religious liberty” issue in political conversation, and in the courts?

The Republican presidential field has forgotten all about how marriage equality is going to force them into intentional Benedictine communities, or how nuns and craft stores would have to pay “crippling” fines rather than violate their religious convictions. They’ve been blinded by another kind of fear.

Last night’s debate, which was focused on foreign policy, further revealed the Republican field’s selective use of both the First Amendment, and, in a brief and probably since-forgotten moment, the Bible.

Fear of Muslims, and a rejection of First Amendment protections for Islam, ran through both the undercard and main debate to varying degrees. In the undercard debate, three of the four candidates openly supported surveilling mosques, botching First Amendment 101 in the process. In former New York Governor George Pataki’s case, he botched the facts, too:  he claimed that the New York Police Department had a “very active group, aggressively monitoring” Muslim communities, which “stopped and prevented dozens, and dozens of attacks in New York.” But the NYPD itself has admitted the program, since disbanded, produced no terrorism leads.

“I’m a great believer in the First Amendment,” Pataki insisted, while advocating for spying on people based on their religion. Moderator Hugh Hewitt then asked Mike Huckabee if Pataki’s proposal violated Muslims’ First Amendment rights. Of course not, the former Arkansas governor replied, maintaining that houses of worship are public places (true, within limits of course) and that this justified the government spying inside of them (not true).

Huckabee didn’t even pretend to distinguish between “moderate” or “peaceful” Muslims and Islamic terrorists, as some of this rivals do. Instead, he papered over his anti-Muslim beliefs with snark. “If Islam is as wonderful, and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn’t they be begging us to all come in and listen to these peaceful sermons?” Huckabee asked. “Shouldn’t they be begging us all to come, and listen, and bring the FBI so we’d all want to convert to Islam?”

Jumping off of Huckabee’s claim, Rick Santorum was, at least, honest about his position that Islam is not protected under the First Amendment:

The fact of the matter is, Islam is different. I know this is going to come as a shock to a lot of people, and I mean the sincerely. Islam is not just a religion. It is also a political governing structure. The fact of the matter is, Islam is a religion, but it is also Sharia law, it is also a civil government, it is also a form of government. And, so, the idea that that is protected under the First Amendment is wrong.

Santorum went on nonetheless to insist to moderator Wolf Blitzer that he believes in First Amendment protections for Muslims, “but what Donald Trump was saying was nothing against Muslims. His comment was against this administration who doesn’t have a policy to properly vet people coming into this country.”

The rest of the field must have gotten the memo, because the “it’s-Obama’s-fault” theme carried over into the main debate as a ruse to evade questions about the constitutionality of singling out Muslims based on their religion. Translation: we wouldn’t have to do any of those things you PC-types are claiming violates the First Amendment if the crypto-Muslim president hadn’t failed to keep us safe.

Blitzer, for example, pointed out to Florida Senator Marco Rubio that he has said banning Muslims is unconstitutional, but that a majority of Republicans support Donald Trump’s proposal to do just that. “Why are they wrong?” Blitzer asked.

The last thing Rubio, running behind Trump and new-Iowa frontrunner Ted Cruz, wants to do, of course, is tell the majority of Republicans they’re wrong. “Well, I understand why they feel that way, because this president hasn’t kept us safe,” he offered. Rubio never weighed in on the constitutional question.

Similarly, Hewitt asked Cruz to specify how he disagreed with Trump on banning Muslims. Cruz’s response: “Well, listen, Hugh, everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has. We’re looking at a president who’s engaged in this double-speak where he doesn’t call radical Islamic terrorism by its name.” To his small credit, Cruz did say, “It’s not a war on a faith; it’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.” But he never addressed the constitutional rights of Muslims living in the United States.

Ben Carson was more blunt. “I don’t care whether it’s a mosque, a school, a supermarket, a theater, you know it doesn’t matter. If there are a lot of people getting there and engaging in radicalizing activities then we need to be suspicious of it.” Carson cited the Muslim Brotherhood Explanatory Memorandum unearthed in the Holy Land Foundation trial as support for monitoring American Muslim groups and being suspicious of Muslims in general–a common conspiracy theory on the right that we debunked here at RD more than four years ago.

This is a presidential field stacked with candidates who love to cite the Bible, or at least “biblical principles,” and in many cases are quite fluent with it. But the Bible came up exactly once last night, in a question asked by a Facebook user, Carla Hernandez, a student at the University of Texas. “If the Bible clearly states that we need to embrace those in need and not fear, how can we justify not accepting refugees?” Hernandez asked.

Republicans will leap at the chance to tell you why the Bible supports banning same-sex marriage or abortion, but this was a duck and cover situation. Even though Hernandez directed her question to all the candidates, Blitzer posed it only to two: Chris Christie, a Catholic, and John Kasich, who has often been praised for his Christian-based attention to the needs of the less fortunate. Both of them, though, punted on talking about the Bible, or uttering any words about welcoming the stranger. Instead, both men focused on the need to “keep us safe” because President Obama has failed to do so. At least last night none of the candidates tried to claim American is a “Judeo-Christian nation.”