A sure-fire way to tell when a public issue in the U.S. has become overrun by emotion, at the expense of reason, is when the proclamation of a basic constitutional principle spurs dramatic reactions of support and opposition from folks on either side of the issue.
Such has apparently become the case with the proposed construction of an Islamic center and mosque in lower Manhattan. At a White House dinner last night marking the month of Ramadan, President Obama made his first public remarks about the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy. In his speech, he said that Muslim Americans have the same protected freedom of religion as anyone else in America and that they have the right to build a house of worship anywhere they like, provided it is approved by local officials and constructed in a way that is consistent with local ordinances.
These measured remarks immediately lit up the cable news channels, the Internet and the morning newspapers. On one side, Muslim leaders and elected officials such as Mayor Bloomberg (New York) and Governor Crist (Florida) rushed to commend the President for his courageous defense of religious freedom. On the other side, conservative activists and other elected officials such as Representative Boehner rushed to condemn the President for his misguided defense of Islam in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
My reactions to the President's remarks is slightly less dramatic: So What?
Of course, on a practical level, it's understandable that the President would tailor his remarks about religious tolerance as relates to the mosque controversy while speaking to an audience of Americans with an intense personal stake in the matter. But what amounts essentially to a recitation of the First Amendment is hardly controversial, nor is it terribly instructive.
Indeed, perhaps sensing that his comments in last night's speech were being interpreted as an expression of support for the contruction of the Ground Zero Mosque, President Obama made sure to stop for reporters this morning after landing in Florida and clarify the limits of his remarks. "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there," said the President. "I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding."
As if this is news to anyone who has flipped through a copy of the U.S. Constitution, let alone taken a high school U.S. history class?
To be sure, the President is accurate when he connects the current controversy to the consistent thread throughout our nation's history when it comes to religious freedom. Even casual observers of our nation's founding are aware that the desire to be free of a government empowered to establish one religion as preferable to any other was a key element of the American Revolution -- a basic principle that was enshrined in the First Amendment. At that time, George Washington was asked by a group of ministers to make sure that the Constitution include a mention of Jesus Christ and perhaps some sort of reference to Christianity -- he wrote a letter in response (1789) that said, in part, "You will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Constitution of the United States." And despite the roar of the anti-Obama voices about the President's decision to host a special dinner for Ramadan at the White House, the truth is that Thomas Jefferson hosted the first such dinner for visiting dignitaries from Africa more than two centuries ago.
So there can be no big dispute that -- in this country -- any religious group has the right to build any house of worship in any location where it is legally permissible. It is a uniquely American axiom that we welcome people of all faiths to practice their religion in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The battlefields of Concord, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, Normandy and Kabul are stained with the blood of American heroes who not only practiced all sorts of religions, but died in part to protect the right of their buddies back home to practice a religion quite different from their own. This is the essence of America.
In my view, the issue at stake in the mosque controversy is not whether the Muslim Americans there have the right to proceed with their plans, but whether doing so is something that advances moral excellence in public life. There is no right or wrong answer to this question, merely different folks advancing different opinions based on their own perspectives.
If the purpose of building this house of worship is because the folks behind it own the property and have no other logical place to build their facility, then I'm not sure there is much to be discussed. But the stated reason they have given for their plans is that they are striving to promote "peace, understanding and healing" in lower Manhattan by "serving as a positive force" in the community. To that extent, it's pretty clear this project has sparked at least as much anger, confusion and fear as it has peace, understanding and healing. If the goal is truly to bring people together, then it seems to me the thing to do would be to apologize for causing so much upset and go find another location to build the mosque. That's my take from 3,000 miles away in California.
The bigger issue here is that we once again find ourselves dealing with a public issue that has become so emotionally fueled that emotion has supplanted reason. Do any of the opponents of this project want the First Amendment to be discarded and people of a different religion than their own to be precluded from practicing their faith? No. Do any supporters of this project want the First Amendment to be used as a baseball bat that allows them to do anything they want? No.
The President's long-awaited remarks this weekend are obviously correct, but this issue goes beyond an understanding of the First Amendment and the principle of religious freedom. The question challenging the good people of Manhattan is not whether a mosque can be built in the proposed location, it's whether doing so will bring hearts together or just break them all over again.