September 21, 2015 7:45 AM EDT

Officials from Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s campaign defended the retired neurosurgeon’s statement Sunday that he would not support a Muslim U.S. President, telling NBC that the candidate’s words should be “watched or read carefully.”

Carson has been under fire since saying he would “not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” during an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. The candidate later said in response to a question that he did not think Islam is consistent with the U.S. constitution.

Carson’s spokesperson Doug Watts, according to NBC News, said Carson did not mean Muslims should in any way not be allowed to run for president. “He [Carson] just doesn’t believe the American people are ready for that,” Watts said.

“Dr. Carson is a strict adherent to the First Amendment — freedom of religion. That includes people of all faith,” Watts said. “He has great respect for the Muslim community, but there is a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values.”

Several candidates, including fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, distanced themselves from Carson’s statement. “I think Dr. Carson needs to apologize,” Graham said, according to Al Jazeera.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders slammed Carson’s statements while talking to reporters later on Sunday.

“Look, you judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin, but on their ideas on what they stand for,” Sanders said, according to the Washington Post. “That’s what democracy is supposed to be about. So I was very disappointed in Dr. Carson’s statement and I disagree with him.”

Watch the full interview at Meet the Press


More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at

Read More From TIME
You May Also Like