On Mosques and Religious Tolerance

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances … This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

So says President Barack Obama, in reference to the plans by an Islamic group to build a major mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. Interesting perspective, that.

The response to the $100 million project sponsored by the Cordoba Initiative is depressing if only because of its banality: Lefties who ordinarily gloat at the erosion of the Judeo-Christian perspective in the public square nevertheless demand a mosque at Ground Zero to show how much America values religious pluralism, while conservatives who normally champion religious freedom demand that the mosque be suppressed or at least located elsewhere.

Both sides are wrong, and hypocritical. As usual.

Conservatives should know better than to impose a sectarian litmus test on the placement of mosques; building the facility a few blocks away from Ground Zero may be tacky, but it does not represent a threat to national security or to religious freedom, even if the project’s funders have shadowy ties to terrorism (hint: that’s what the FBI is for). Cries about the sensitivity of the “victims of 9/11” ring hollow, as well — the dead have no feelings to offend, and in any case, appealing to victimhood is hardly a staple tactic of the Right’s playbook, and for good reason. I cannot adduce a single non-aesthetic conservative principle that should justify opposition to the Cordoba Initiative’s plan.

However, liberals who assert that permitting a mosque in that location is a sign of America’s robust religious tolerance are not fooling anyone. The Left leads the assault against religious freedom in America, through incremental restrictions against the public display of Judeo-Christian sensibilities in the public square. No serious person believes that liberals are unabashed proponents of religious expression: Look no further than the ongoing drama over the Christian Legal Society’s funding for proof. If anything, this situation is a sign that the Left’s embrace of non-Western diversity is genuinely as muddle-headed and chronically unserious as many conservatives feared — that liberals cannot distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture, nor grasp that the Muslim world has no American-style “wall of separation” between religious faith and political authority that allows for the purely private religious belief characteristic of WASP social mores.

The one aspect of this situation that disturbs me the most isn’t the hypocrisy of it, however. Rather, it’s the unspoken assumption that the Cordoba Initiative’s plan somehow marks a referendum on America’s commitment to religious pluralism.

You hear it from Barack Obama. You hear it from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. You hear it from New York governor David Patterson. The refrain is the same: We must permit the Cordoba Initiative to do exactly as it wishes, because any restrictions on mosque placement will necessarily imply that the last 221 years of the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment protections will thereby beĀ  irrevocably refuted. Or, in its more crude form: We must let them do as they want to show how tolerant we are.

Conservatives have missed the boat on picking up on the substantive argument, instead preferring by-and-large to offer twofold opposition on the grounds that, first, allowing a mosque at Ground Zero means the terrorists win, and second, that a mosque so close to the allegedly sacred ground of the Twin Towers constitutes a fresh trauma for the survivors of 9/11. Both claims are unadulterated nonsense. This is a logistics issue, not a political-philosophy dilemma.

The real problem here is the astonishing failure of leadership by New York city and state leaders. If we concede the Cordoba Initiative’s inherent right to build a mosque, and we accept that there is a legitimate perception problem (as well as public opposition) for a mosque at Ground Zero, then the solution is pretty simple: Let elected leaders apply the incentives and dis-incentives of government to “facilitate” the mosque somewhere else in New York. If they can do it to preserve spotted toads in California, why not a mosque in Manhattan?

I seriously doubt that New York under Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki would have ceded its moral authority to a group of shadowy imams the same way that Bloomberg and Patterson have allowed. The fact that this is even an issue speaks volumes about the leadership ineptitude from city hall and from Albany. The reason that American religious pluralism has been so robust is because the state serves as an impartial referee among competing interests without giving any particular interest the right to make an absolute claim. We didn’t allow the Mormons to engage in polygamy, we don’t allow just anyone to smoke peyote, we don’t say that molesting kids is OK as long as it’s only in the confessional, and we don’t let soldiers suddenly decide, a week before they deploy, that they have a religious opposition to war. So why should government abdicate its power to influence the placement of the mosque on the flimsiest of religious-freedom grounds? It’s hard to say which is more breathtaking: The irrationality of the situation, or the incompetence or cowardice of those at the helm of the involved governments.

Let there be no mistake: The Cordoba Initiative should be allowed to build a mosque. Placing the mosque at Ground Zero is tacky and insensitive and will be a thorn in the community for many years to come. But this whole brouhaha is less a referendum on America’s commitment to religious freedom than an indictment on the failure of political leaders to respond with foresight and wisdom to an entirely foreseeable controversy.

Let us pray that New Yorkers wise up to the real problem.

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  1. Curiously missing from your analysis is the voice of people like the good people of Tennessee.


    “I found out when the sign came up,” said Murfreesboro resident Mark Walker, whose home is near the site of the proposed mosque. “We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this.”

    “They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don’t want them necessarily in my neighborhood,” said local resident Stan Whiteway.

    And my favorite:
    Tracey Steven, who also attended, said, “Our country was founded through the founding fathers — through the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ.”

    Jason, you forget that there are batshit crazy people in this country, and they are the ones we need to watch out for. You claim that there are “lefties” who “ordinarily gloat at the erosion of the Judeo-Christian perspective in the public square,” (without naming one, I might add), but you seemingly hold the right blameless when people like Tracey Steven intimidate other citizens exercising their first amendment rights.

    If the Judeo Christian perspective is people who think that God, the Father, and Jesus Christ founded America (apparently the Holy Spirit was on the side of the Redcoats), then maybe they should be banished from the public square. If that happens, I’ll be the first lefty to gloat.

  2. And another thing. You chose your most pompous statement for the end:
    “Let us pray that New Yorkers wise up to the real problem.”

    I think all New Yorkers thank you, Jason from Grand Rapids, Michigan, for telling them what the REAL problem is.

    Have you ever been to New York City? Do you know any New Yorkers? If you did, you’d know they don’t really need advice from Jason from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

    1. Are you from Tennessee, Frankie? I think this is a pot-kettle-black scenario.

      To be honest, I’m not impressed with the “you gotta be there to get it” argument. I’ve laid out, in straightforward fashion, a claim about a complex phenomenon that does not belong to any particular geography.

      And RE: the Murfeesboro lunatics, I’m not going to chase the straw man. OF COURSE they are deranged idiots. So what? I didn’t call them out any more than I’ve called out the Truthers. You can always point to the radical fringe and say, “See? What about them?” but in the end, I’m more interested in the middle 2/3s of the bell curve than in the long tails. Focusing on the fringe is usually an unnecessary distraction.

      1. Here’s what I don’t understand. You say:
        “first, allowing a mosque at Ground Zero means the terrorists win, and second, that a mosque so close to the allegedly sacred ground of the Twin Towers constitutes a fresh trauma for the survivors of 9/11. Both claims are unadulterated nonsense. ”

        Then, you call it “an entirely foreseeable controversy.”

        Which is it? Nonsense, or a controversy? Let’s say you (as a white male from Michigan) were to move to Oklahoma City and buy a house near the site of the Murrah Federal Building tragedy (good house, close to work, great price). What would you say to people who tied you (as a white male from Michigan) to Tim McVeigh, and told the city you shouldn’t buy a house there. Are their accusations of your ties to a mass murderer nonsense, or an entirely foreseeable controversy?

        My point is that this mosque has taken on the status of “controversy” because of the fringe, and that is why your analysis should take the fringe into account. The two arguments against the mosque are as empty as your alleged ties to Tim McVeigh. And yet, those arguments (made by people who are batshit crazy) have forced this non-issue to the front of the media’s attention.

        The fringe won’t be swayed by the facts of Cordoba. But I don’t buy the argument that there’s any controversy here.

        As Bloomberg said:
        “The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.”

        End of story. Welcome to America.

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