The second and far better option is to get the candidate to confirm that he would take the oath of office — and mean it. In swearing that he would “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the would-be president affirms that he would treat the nation’s fundamental law as the highest or ultimate law in all circumstances — even if and when he sensed a tension or conflict between the Constitution and his personal faith. As long as a candidate publicly pledges to put his faith aside in the case of a direct conflict between it and the duties of his office, he passes the religious test.
And that brings us back to Carson’s comments — both to what was smart about them, and what was offensive.
Carson’s first, widely decried comment about how we shouldn’t “put a Muslim in charge of this nation” is a perfect example of how not to administer an informal religious test — because it treats all Muslim-American citizens as if they uniformly affirm illiberal views. Whether Carson meant to imply that a Muslim president would inevitably reveal himself upon taking office to be a covert ISIS operative or merely seek to impose Sharia law on the nation, the insinuation was both insulting and ignorant.
But in his later statement, Carson gestured toward something far more thoughtful: What matters is what a candidate says and how she lives her life. If she’s used her actions and words to elevate the nation, encourage success, and foster peace and harmony, then it shouldn’t really matter what faith community she belongs to.