Gov. Christie delivered a spirited, impromptu defense last week of a Muslim lawyer he had nominated for a judgeship. On the face of it, the comments weren't extraordinary. But given the way some Republicans have recently characterized Muslims, what he said was remarkable to hear from a GOP darling.
Consider these statements by other Republicans, all likely to run for president next year:
"I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they [his grandchildren] are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, once the most powerful Republican in the country, said that last Sunday.
"Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal." That was the response from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), a tea party favorite, to a 2005 debate question about riots among French Muslims.
"No, I will not." That was Herman Cain, a longshot candidate who appears before mainstream conservative crowds, last weekend on whether he would appoint a Muslim as a judge or cabinet member.
But Christie - who has been courted to run for president - has basically done just what Cain said he would never do. In January, he nominated Sohail Mohammed, an Indian-born Muslim living in Clifton, to Superior Court in Passaic County. Mohammed awaits confirmation by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Christie had not said much publicly about Mohammed until Tuesday, when he took a question at a Hammonton town-hall meeting from a Marlton man with an American flag on his shirt. Reiterating an accusation that has circulated mostly in the right-wing blogosphere, the man wanted to know why Christie was appointing an "Islamist" who defends Guantanamo Bay inmates.
Christie first said Mohammed was not involved with Gitmo inmates and instead had represented those detained after Sept. 11 before they were released and exonerated.
"Now, I have to tell you something," Christie said. "If it is disqualifying for the bench to be an Arab American in New Jersey who represents innocent people and gets them released, then this isn't the state I believe it is."
Christie, who misspoke in calling Mohammed an Arab American, went on to say Mohammed is a "good, decent American and New Jerseyan." The man with the flag on his shirt thanked the governor, and there was cautious applause.
Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University who has written extensively on Islamophobia, noted that Christie also had bucked the sentiment of his party last year in criticizing the rush to politicize the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque near the World Trade Center site.
"He was one of the people who said this is actually a wrong bandwagon for Republicans to jump on because Republicans will be seen as intolerant," Kumar said.
Most recently, Christie said he did not object to the firing of a NJ Transit worker who burned a Quran.
Kumar said she believed that anti-Muslim bias had spiked since the mosque dispute and the arrest of Montgomery County's so-called Jihad Jane, an American woman accused of aiding terrorists. Some Republicans have helped foster that, she said, and have taken cues from right-wing parties in Europe that blame immigrants and Muslims for economic insecurity.
"My analysis of this is the tea party movement really has been instrumental in sort of pushing around not just questions of economics, which is how they present themselves, but also issues of race and scapegoating," Kumar said.
Christie is an exception, she said.
With Muslim and Indian American populations growing in New Jersey, appointing Mohammed is good politics. But judgeships are particularly sensitive, because recent rhetoric has focused on fears that Islamic Sharia law could take over American courts.
"One of their key arguments is if there's any Muslim allowed to occupy any part of the political sphere, we're going to see an Islamic state come into being," Kumar said of the critics.
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are Muslim, she said, so that premise is absurd. Still, in an ABC/Washington Post poll last summer, nearly half the respondents said they viewed Muslims unfavorably, a big increase from 2002, after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The difference at that time may have been this: A major politician emphatically declared Islam a religion of "peace." That man's name? George W. Bush.