Over the past few months, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain has carved out a place as the most prominent anti-Muslim figure in the GOP presidential field, and, arguably, the country.
First, earlier this year, he promised he would not hire any Muslims to be in his future cabinet, subsequently repeating various versions of that pledge. Then, on a trip to Tennessee last week, Cain came out against the construction of a mosque project there. On Fox News Sunday, he expanded that stance, endorsing the idea that any American community could bar construction of mosques.
To get a response to Cain's new comments, I spoke to Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who is one of two Muslim members of Congress and who has emerged in recent years as a loud anti-anti-Muslim voice.
"It seems like a week doesn't go by without Cain saying something incredibly offensive, so I can only guess that he's doing it on purpose," said Ellison. "He's probably figured out that he can get headlines if he says something really ugly, so he doesn't disappoint."
Ellison said he feels moved to address these issues because when people "start whipping up hatred against a certain group over the course of years, bad things happen. History teaches us that if you continue to stir the pot, stir the cauldron, it will not be long before something awful happens."
A partial transcript of our conversation follows.
What's your reaction to Herman Cain's comments on Sunday that communities should be able to ban construction of mosques?
This is ridiculous and has no foundation in American law. In fact, the U.S. Constitution says Congress shall make no law establishing a religion and shall not abridge the exercise thereof. He runs right into the First Amendment. But the larger question is, why is he trying distinguish himself as the religious bigot of the presidential race of 2011 and 2012?
Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. It's not a new trick. Back during Obama's first run they tried to accuse him -- and I put "accuse" in quotation marks -- of being a Muslim, and this is a strategy that obviously failed. And yet they continue with this religious bigotry. It seems to be a strategic move on their part. I don't know if Herman Cain is just a sick individual, or if he is using bigotry to strategically move his campaign forward. But in either case it's reprehensible that he just will not relent with this bigotry and that he actually thinks it's going to enhance his chances to get the Republican nomination. If I were a Republican, I would be outraged. Anyone who cares about religious liberty and inclusion has got to be offended by Herman Cain.