Back in September 2015 presidential candidate Ben Carson said that for a Muslim to be president “you have to reject the tenets of Islam.” He had taken quite a bit of heat for saying that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” the previous week. But instead of walking back those comments, he doubled-down on his claim that Muslims should not be president. He went on to say
I would have problems with somebody who embraced all the doctrines associated with Islam. If they are not willing to reject sharia law and all the portions of it that are talked about in the Quran — if they are not willing to reject that, and subject that to American values and the Constitution, then of course, I would.
Carson’s answer evinces an obvious misunderstanding of the varied beliefs of Muslims both around the world and in the United States, as well as a tired, yet predictable, predilection toward essentializing Islam in the worst possible means. I bring up Carson’s statements from four months ago (even as he has dropped to 4th in the race for the Republican nomination and continues to drop) not to rehash his essentializing rhetoric but to focus on the question of prioritizing one’s religious and national identities.
When discussing identities, especially in light of American politics, we often forget the polyvalence of identities. We are all constantly negotiating and renegotiating our various identities; politicians are no exception. This process of negotiation is brought to the fore in a national election like the one we’re in the midst of. Sometimes this takes the form of a sort of code-switching. Marco Rubio, for instance, can fully identify with the Catholic Church “but he expresses himself in evangelical terms.” We can also think of the religious dog whistling so common in political speeches.
Other times the negotiated relationship between one’s polyvalence of identities comes in the form of hierarchy and prioritization. For Ben Carson this meant that one’s Muslim identity must be subject to his American identity. His desire that one’s American identity take primacy of place over one’s religious identity does not extend to Christianity, however. In fact, for Carson and much of the GOP one’s religious identity should trump one’s national identity, so long as that religious identity is Christian (preferably of the conservative, evangelical variety). This is clear in Marco Rubio’s response to whether he would be a pastor in chief or commander in chief (asked by an atheist).
I’m a Christian. I want to be very clear about something. Not only am I a Christian, and not only am I influenced by my faith, but it is the single greatest influence in my life. And from that I’ll never hide. And I’ll tell you why. Because I know that if I’m lucky, I get to live to be 85 or 90 . . . but I’m more interested in eternity, and the ability to live forever, with my creator — that you don’t believe in, but I do. And that’s what I aspire to more than anything else.
He probably did not win that atheist’s vote, but he clearly gave the “right” answer as far as most Republicans are concerned. (It should also be mentioned, though, that Cruz’s identification as a Catholic — the “wrong” kind of Christian — appears to be hurting him tremendously with Iowa evangelicals. Thus we have another set of identities that are constantly being negotiated).
Ted Cruz also recently made his identity priorities clear when his “allegiance” to the Republican Party was questioned by Bob Dole.
I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth. I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way.
Cruz lays out his identity priorities clearer than any other candidate here because he knows that how a presidential candidate prioritizes his or her identities is an important signal to voters. He rightly understands that for most of the evangelicals he is courting in Iowa, their identities are prioritized in the same order. We can see that this is the desired identity hierarchy for many Republicans around the county when we look at the continued fight over “religious liberty.” Republican lawmakers all across the country continue to fight for the “religious liberties” of Christians who they believe have had their liberties denied because they may not be able to place their own identity as Christians at the top of their priority list in their business dealings by being given legal cover to discriminate against LGBT people.
We may lament that the separation of church and state is not more evenly applied with respect to identity prioritization — one must be an American first and a Muslim second, but a Christian should be a Christian first and an American second — but we should not be surprised. As with everything else related to religion in the West, Christianity continues to enjoy its status as the quintessential “religion.” This means that such an uneven — one might even say hypocritical — ideal of identity prioritization will remain dominant among Republican politicians. As Cruz hints, the people have spoken. Their identity is Christian first, American second. And so their politicians must be Christian first, American second. For remember, just as all religion is politics, all identity is performance.
Image by Gage Skidmore