Ratchel Levit

(The New York Times) The Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is drawing criticism over the bigoted comments he has been making recently about Muslims. It is well deserved, and is not a matter of “P.C. culture,” as Mr. Carson  has claimed. . Nor does Mr. Carson represent some minor fringe element in the Republican Party.

This latest sordid mess to arise from the G.O.P. nomination contest touches on bedrock American values, constitutional principles and American history. It reflects a pernicious habit among the leaders of the Republican Party to play with fire by pandering to an angry, disaffected and heavily white base by demonizing selected minorities. Muslims are just the current target.

Mr. Carson declared Sunday on “Meet the Press” that Muslims are unfit to run for president because a president’s faith should be “consistent with the Constitution.” Later, he told the newspaper The Hill  that Islamic Shariah law isn’t consistent with the Constitution because “Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that’s inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution.”

Leave aside for a moment the unintentionally funny spectacle of a member of the current Republican Party declaring that religion should be kept out of public life, and that Mr. Carson, as an African-American, is a member of a much belittled minority. The freedom of religion embedded in the First Amendment rules out the very idea of a religious test for public office, as John F. Kennedy so eloquently argued and then proved by becoming the first Catholic president.

Following Mr. Carson’s comments, some Republicans tried to suggest that anti-Muslim feelings existed only in parts of the party’s grass-roots base. Some argued that former President George W. Bush drew a line between the country’s antiterrorism efforts after 9/11 and a broader campaign against Muslims. “We’ve worked so hard to try to make it clear that that isn’t the case,” said  Tony Fratto, who was a press aide to Mr. Bush. “But each time somebody does this kind of thing, it makes it harder.”

But Mr. Carson is hardly alone in his demagogy. Donald Trump has accused President Obama of being foreign born, and is continuing to stoke suspicions that Mr. Obama is a Muslim — a myth that a disturbing number of Republicans believe. Last week, Mr. Trump welcomed a question from a man who asserted  “we have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims,” that “our current president is one,” and the man asked “when can we get rid of them?” Instead of telling the truth, that Mr. Obama is an American-born Christian, Mr. Trump said, “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”

Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina publicly disagreed with Mr. Carson, but neither truly matters in the campaign or the party. Other Republican hopefuls — Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, and Jeb Bush at least deigned to acknowledge that Mr. Obama is American and is not Muslim. But these efforts have been tepid, at best, because the Republicans are playing to polls that show support for Muslims ranks far below other religious groups among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters.

The phenomenon isn’t new. Running for president in 2008, Senator John McCain was praised when a voter called Mr. Obama an Arab and Mr. McCain replied by calling him a “decent family man, citizen,” but he didn’t rebut the lie. Former President Bush sometimes said the right things, but instituted a system of detention, torture and trial that applies only to Muslims.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is playing out in the refugee crisis caused by hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, fleeing wars in the Middle East. The United States recently agreed to take an additional 30,000 refugees  per year by 2017, but some conservatives are objecting, claiming they will provide a recruiting pool for radicals. Closing the country’s doors to Muslims would buy into Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump’s vilification and dishonor the thousands of Muslims who have joined Irish, Italians, Germans, French, Jews, Russians, Latinos, Africans and many others in becoming honorable citizens and perhaps, one day, president.