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 be  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.