“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
George Washington, August 17, 1790 in reply to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, Library of Congress.
Well before religious tolerance was enshrined in our First Amendment it was promoted as a pillar of this country’s then-fledgling democracy. Yet here we are, over two hundred years later, still responding to religious intolerance in its most vile form.
Cordoba House – the Ground Zero Mosque
I’m talking about the Cordoba House–or, if you’ve been listening only to certain media outlets– the Ground Zero mosque. In reality Cordoba House is much more than a mosque. It is a community center with space for prayer. And in reality Cordoba House will sit near, not on, Ground Zero (approximately two blocks from the site). And in reality there are already at least two mosques that predate both Cordoba House and Ground Zero within this area.
But this is politics, not reality.
Hate as a Political Tool
The politics of the debate is another display of the most odious and basest elements of our culture. Those who argue against its construction implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, equate Islam with terrorism and have argued that it is designed as a symbol of “conquest” by the Muslim world. Those arguments have been persuasive as some polls show nationwide opposition to Cordoba House and on the heels of an increase in right wing vandalism against Muslim places of worship across the country.
The Costs of Courage
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the first to stand up, in impassioned and beautiful fashion, and called out the anti-Cordoba House campaign for the misinformed racism that it is. Finally, President Obama weighed in stating the obvious–that the commitment to religious freedom in this country must be unshakable and that the government cannot treat people of one faith differently than people of another.
Well, it just goes to show that the President is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. No sooner were these remarks made then the right pounced on his “unfortunate endorsement” of the project. In response the administration made clear that it was in no way saying whether or not the project was a good idea or a bad idea, just that religious freedom and religious tolerance must be embraced and endorsed by the government, and that means tolerance and freedom for all faiths.
Politico soon spun this as the President “walking back” on his earlier statements (indeed, there was no more a walking back than a desire by Politico to generate page views) and the left which had finally found an issue to applaud the President on began taking shots. Today some of the left’s hullaboo has seemed to die down a bit, but once again what gets lost in all this bile is reality.
Opposing Radical Islam
As Digby points out, The Cordoba House is designed to stand in direct opposition to the Islam and world view of the 9/11 attackers. It’s goal, its purpose, is to be a symbol of inclusion, reconciliation, healing and understanding across faiths and cultures. This is precisely why Mayor Bloomberg gave such an impassioned response to its critics and threw his full-throated support behind the project. As the Mayor suggested, and as Digby comes right out and says, the only way a person could conflate The Cordoba House with radical, militant Islam is if that person thought that Islam and terrorism are one in the same. Which, I think, gets right to the heart of the debate.
Every religion has its radicals capable of hijacking faith in the name of political zealotry. In this country Christians murder doctors and bomb federal buildings all in the name of their beliefs. Catholics must find some peace in a history of child abuse that spawns generations. Even the Anti-Defamation League showed a far-less tolerant side in the debate surrounding The Cordoba House.
The President did the right thing in coming out in strong support for the First Amendment and pointing out that it does in fact apply to people of all faiths. He did not, nor should he have, given an emotional endorsement one way or another of the project. Indeed, had he done so he would have blemished the very spirit of the religious protections enshrined in our Constitution.
photo courtesy of Chor Ip via Flickr