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The Faithful Search: A Civics Primer for Real Patriots

Posted: 08/09/10 12:07 PM ET

Cordoba House, the proposed mosque and community center near Ground Zero, appears to have catalyzed a national crisis of faith. Laurie Goodstein's article in the New York Times, "Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition" documents at least three demonstrations against proposed mosques in Temecula, CA, Sheboygan, WI, and Murfreesboro, TN. Add two others proposed mosque location in New York -- one in Sheephead Bay and the other on Staten Island -- and the national total climbs to six contested Muslim houses of worship within the last four months.

The proliferating nature of these anti-mosque demonstrations and their shifting tenor from concerns about noise and parking to panicked claims about the imminent threats of "Islamization" and "Shariazation" begs a moment of national introspection -- not just about the state of our individual souls but also our collective grasp of The Great American Civics Course.

Most civics lessons begin with an outline of the rights and responsibilities of a US Citizen. With citizenship, we are instructed, comes the responsibility to vote and -- since Robert Putman underlined Alexis de Toqueville on the importance of voluntary association building good democratic habits -- a strong warning against bowling alone. Public engagement and service to the wider community is a civic responsibility that knows no partisan or religious boundary -- it holds true for Muslims, Presbyterians, and Tea Party activists alike. Traditionally, it's been political conservatives who have known this part of the lesson better than the rest of us. Of late, however, the particularly patriotic set has neglected its homework.

How else does one explain such virulent reaction to Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife Daisy Kahn, a couple who, as a members of the Community Board One, are aptly described as "The Rotarians" of the American Muslim community? Back in the fall of 2001, when President George W. Bush assured the American people that the War on Terror was not a war against Islam and held the first-ever White House Ramadan Iftar meal, it would have been hard to imagine a more picture perfect example of Muslim Americans exercising their civic responsibilities than by building a thirteen-story YMCA-style community center complete with prayer space, sports facilities, publicly accessible meeting rooms, an auditorium, theatrical programming, and resources for children with disabilities. (Indeed, the closer such a building were to located to Ground Zero, the more it would thumb its nose at terrorists who hated freedom of all kinds -- particularly religious freedom).

A nation-wide civics refresher course at this moment in time would also remind us of the historic importance of religious freedom as a basic American value. Such a course would include a bit of history -- not just about the importance of freedom of religious expression and its non-establishment to our founders, but also about the times in the past when these core democratic principles have been violated.

A good civics primer with its smattering of US history would show us, for example, that twenty-first-century American fears of Islam echo nineteenth-century fears of Roman Catholicism: "I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion, but Islam is not about a religion. It's a political government, and it's 100 percent against our Constitution," Diane Serafin, a participant in last Friday's demonstration against a mosque site near San Diego, explained in the Goodstein article. Her voice and those of other members of ACT! for America, a Florida-based group seeking to defend Western civilization against Islam, echo the words of Samuel F.B. Morse, the nineteenth-century inventor of the telegraph and distinguished professor of sculpture at New York University. In his book Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, he described Roman Catholicism this way:

Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.

His words and those of other anti-Catholic preachers like Lymon Beacher could easily have inspired the mob gathered outside the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in New York City, St. Patrick's "Old Cathedral" -- not far from today's Grounds Zero -- in 1835. On that day and others subsequently, Archbishop John Hughes was forced to assemble his parishioners -- and later the Ancient Order of the Hibernians -- to defend their house of worship against protesters who marched on St. Patrick's chanting epitaphs like "Paddies of the Pope..." and showed a determination to "burn her to the ground."

While the faithful who do not learn the lessons of civic disasters past may be doomed to repeat them, all hope is not lost. In the past as well as the present, esteemed graduates of the Great American Civics Course -- many of them First Ladies -- have been around to encourage the rest of us to get back to our studies. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, wrote words regretting Anti-Catholic sentiment in the election of President John F. Kennedy that could apply to civicly-challenged anti-Muslim fears today: "What seemed to me most deplorable," she writes in her reflections on the 1960 election, "was not the fact that so many people feared the strength of the Roman Catholic Church; it was that they had no faith in the strength of their own way of life and their own Constitution" (Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003).

Roosevelt's words urged Americans then and remind us now not to forget that our Founders came here for religious freedom and the right to worship God as they chose. She believed that religious the freedom was foundation stone of the Republic and said, "I, for one, believe in it with all my heart, and I reject, with shame and indignation, the fear, the lack of faith, the shaken confidence of those who would topple the stone on which we stand so proudly."

The Rev. Chloe Breyer is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York and Associate Minister at St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

Matthew Weiner is the Program Director of the Interfaith Center of New York.