Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, is drawing criticism for remarks made earlier this month in which he appears to question whether Islam is a religion.

In a video clip recently made available online, Ramsey is asked during a campaign stop about his stand on “a threat invading our country from the Muslims.” After responding that he is “all about freedom of religion,” Ramsey adds, “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, or cult, whatever you want to call it.”

Ramsey also takes the opportunity to voice his dismay about the decision of the Rutherford County Planning Commission to allow the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to construct a new facility, which Ramsey incorrectly calls a “mosque.” “I’m in the real estate business,” he says. “That’s a three-month process. They approved that in 17 days in Rutherford County.”

But a local television station reported, “The area the Islamic Center purchased . . . already had the correct zoning for a church [and] therefore did not need a public hearing before it was approved.”

In a response to Ramsey’s remarks posted on CNN’s Belief Blog, Boston University’s Stephen Prothero finds it ironic that, on Ramsey’s telling, “Islam, the world’s second largest religion, may not be a religion after all.” He writes:

Apparently, Ramsey, who began his pitch with a paean to “this free country,” believes that the free market does not apply to religion, or at least not to religions that do not meet with the approval of elected officials like himself. Which leads me to wonder, first, whether Christianity really is so weak in Tennessee that it needs the coercive power of the government to maintain itself, and, second, whether the commitment to limited government of Tennessee’s Republicans is so thin that it does not require the state to stay out of our individual decisions concerning where (and whether) to pray, and to whom.

The Murfreesboro controversy is one of several concurrent ongoing debates over the construction of Islamic centers in the U.S., ranging from the Cordoba Initiative’s proposal for a center near “Ground Zero” in New York to a proposal pending before the local planning commission for an Islamic center in Temecula, California.

In the face of Ramsey’s suggestion that Islam is not a genuine religion, and thus ineligible for First Amendment protections, it is tempting to side with Prothero: of course Islam is a religion! But is this, in the end, a straightforwardly factual question that religion scholars can answer?

In the United States, “religion” names a social status, which brings with it access to legal protections and social capital. To be a religion is, in at least one important sense, to be acknowledged as such. Is Islam a religion? The answer will hinge in part on how Americans respond to Ramsey’s suggestion that it is not.