08/19/2010 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Mosques and Madison

St. Peter's is the oldest Catholic Church in New York City. It is located on Barclays Street in lower Manhattan, a block from Ground Zero.

The church was founded in 1840 and is iconic for New York Catholics as the place where Mother (now St.) Elizabeth Seton converted to Catholicism. The church property includes a narrow strip on its southern border, fronting the appropriately named Church Street. And here stands another iconic memorial, the steel cross which was among the remnants of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The cross was "consecrated" shortly after it was discovered and now awaits its final resting place at Ground Zero alongside the Church located a block away.

Though there were Muslim victims among the thousands of innocents slaughtered on 9/11, none of their families or friends complained when the cross went up at St.Peter's. It was not perceived as insensitive to them or their fellow believers, nor was it said to inappropriately inject an element of division into the planned memorial.

No politicians complained either.

Now, some New Yorkers want to build an Islamic Cultural Center on Park Place in lower Manhattan. The owners bought the land and have obtained zoning approval for the Center. The site is between Broadway and Church Street, about equidistant from City Hall and Ground Zero. It is not, however, being labeled the "City Hall Mosque." Though even closer to the lower boundary of Tribeca, it is also not being called the "Tribeca Mosque." Rather, in a fit of geographic invention, it is now lampooned as the "Ground Zero Mosque."

Lots of politicians are complaining. Lest any side seize the moral high ground, the complaining is unfortunately bipartisan. For the GOP, the yellers are led by Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and a host of Congressman and candidates. For the Democrats, the Senate Majority Leader has weighed in against the so-called mosque, saying it should be built elsewhere, as has New York's Democratic Governor. The President appeared to initially favor the Center but now has equivocated, claiming that his defense of the "right" to build it did not necessarily constitute an endorsement of the "wisdom" in building it.

Many of the families of the victims of 9/11 are also apoplectic with anger, indeed rage.

Where to begin?

Let's start with the families. In my book, they get a pass. They are victims themselves. And entitled to be as angry as they want at whoever and whatever appears to them to be insensitive. They are not ipso facto racists or intolerant, anymore than the legion of South Boston Irish protesting busing in the '70s were racists. The Irish cared about their kids and did not want them going to lousy schools. The 9/11 families care about their memories, which is all the terrorists left them with after slaughtering their loved ones.

So the families get a pass.

But no one else does.

Not Newt . . . or Sarah . . . or Sen. Harry Reid . . . or New York Governor David Paterson. Not even Barack.

They all should know better.

To begin, this is America, not Saudi Arabia. When Newt Gingrich bellowed that a mosque should be built at Ground Zero when a church is built in Saudi Arabia, my jaw dropped. The whole idea behind our "shining City on the Hill," to quote Ronald Reagan, is that we are different. The values of religious tolerance and pluralism that inform our First Amendment in particular and our entire culture in general obviously fall on deaf ears in Riyadh.

And I do not want to be "like them."

So, Newt, no thanks. I'd rather see a thousand mosques in lower Manhattan if the price I have to pay to keep one out is waiting for a church to be built in Saudi Arabia. And curiously, until Newt made his comment, I thought he agreed. He is, after all, of the party that decidedly rejects the notion that any of our constitutional liberties should be informed by foreign practices or customs. The right wing loudly decries any attempts to pour content into the notion of American due process by embracing the European Convention on Human Rights or the progressive social mores of our western brethren. But they now appear to have lost their analytic nerve. Or at least Newt has.

Because he wants to read our First Amendment through the prism of Saudi intolerance.

Newt's constitutional ignorance, however, may be trumped by the Democrats' transparent political cowardice. So many are running for cover, it is now taking on the look of a stampede. Granted, the right wing has done what it has always been very good at doing -- finding and exploiting a wedge issue shortly before the season of electioneering kicks off in earnest. The "Ground Zero Mosque," which for the (irrelevant) record is not at Ground Zero and is not just or even primarily a mosque, is simply this year's version of the Willie Horton ad -- designed to divide and conquer as it appeals to both our basest fears and our sometimes visceral intolerance for "the other."

The Democratic defense, echoing the President's apparent volte face, is that a Constitutional right to undertake any course of action is distinct from the utility or propriety of doing so. This distinction between rights and wisdom, however, is too cute by half. Religious freedom in America is fundamental. And it is paramount. Well intentioned sensitivity to the feelings of those offended by another's practice, or place of practice, is never a sufficient basis for limiting that freedom.

Among America's elites, the only profile in courage last week was Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He did not insist that we compromise basic rights. Or that we ignore all we have hitherto held sacred. He eschewed any phony distinction between rights and wisdom because he knew that the rights bequeathed by James Madison, among them religious freedom, are our wisest inheritance.

He came out four square for the Islamic Cultural Center.

"This is America," said Mayor Bloomberg.

Case closed.