To build or not to build? That is the question now dogging President Obama, as voters--both religious and agnostic--question his reluctance to take a meaningful stand over whether a new mosque should be built near Manhattan's Ground Zero.
It's a complicated analysis, filled with complicated and often contradictory considerations, and too often punctuated with passion and ignorance. But what was once a local zoning issue has now become a national lightening rod for broader strategic questions concerning how America should treat religious freedom, terrorism, and ethnic tension in our post-9/11 world.
We need our President to take a stand. Silent for much of the summer, Obama finally entered the fray earlier this month. Well, kind of.
In making his first public statement, Obama said he supports the legal right of mosque leaders to "build a place of worship," but added that he would not "comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque [within a short distance of where the World Trade Center Towers stood before they were toppled by terrorist-hijacked planes in 2001]."
To summarize his position: It's legally permissible to build the mosque, but our President isn't interested in playing peace maker, mediator, defender of justified sensitivities, or religious tolerance.
Certainly, some hesitation on Obama's part is understandable. After all, he has endured endless conspiracies about his connections to Islam, having spent portions of his childhood in a Muslim nation.
But no one said being President would be easy. With international interest now focusing in on how America will act here, the mosque's fate may play a major role in foreign relations.
As I previously wrote previously for this site, I support mosque leaders for several reasons--and very few of them have to do with religion.
"While 9-11 forced Americans to look at the world--and their place in it--in a whole new way, it should have also taught us a very important lesson that too many among us seem determined to ignore," I wrote in a Memorial Day piece. "The best way to fight radical Muslim terrorism is through cultivating Muslim leaders to counter fanaticism. By shutting the door to honorable, hard working people simply because of their ethnicity or religion, we're in some ways just as ignorant as the cultures who shroud women in burkas."
As a first-hand witness to 2001's 9/11 attacks (which claimed innocent Muslims among those murdered) I believe the best thing we can do to discourage future terrorist violence on American soil is to facilitate assimilation of ordinary Muslims into American culture wherever and however possible.
Also, as an attorney whose practice includes the protection of property rights, I cling passionately to the right of individuals and religious groups to use their own land in ways that don't infringe on the property rights of others. Today, Muslims are the target. But if the mosque is stopped here, what's to stop leaders in Muslim-majority cities, like Dearborn, Michigan, from targeting Christians seeking to build new churches? The Fifth Amendment may protect property rights, but it cannot mandate religious tolerance.
America must find a way to shake its justly earned reputation that we demand "tolerance" from nations and leaders abroad, but too often fail to give it to religious and ethnic immigrant groups who today call America home. One way or another, Obama needs to take a stand. If we want a legal interpretation, we can go to the Supreme Court. We deserve a courage policy response from the White House.
Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith, Jr., experts on religious freedom and constitutional rights, hit the nail on the head this week, penning an analysis that concluded ,"America needs to hear from President Obama, not Professor Obama."
Ross and Smith, authors of Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State believe in religious freedom. Coming from different religious traditions, the duo is united in their intriguing thesis that America's contemporary leaders lack a basic fundamental understanding of what our founders intended as far as the relationship between government, religion, and popular culture.
In their analysis, Ross and Smith encourage Obama to heed the example of America's first president, George Washington:
Washington certainly understood the freedom of religious exercise guaranteed by the First Amendment (ratified during Washington's presidency), but he also understood the need for presidential leadership when that legal backdrop alone does not provide all the answers. When faced with a question of religious liberty, Washington exercised sound judgment in addressing the ultimate question: What result, within the legal framework, is best for the public good?
Washington, it must be remembered, was second to none in his respect and support for freedom of religion. Washington once offered 'Religious Liberty' as a justification for the American Revolution: Along with civil liberty, it was 'the Motive which induced me to the Field.' Yet he also knew that the legal rules alone do not answer all the hard questions. Instead, the public good often requires that individuals forbear the exercise of their rights or that government forbear the exercise of its powers.
After the American Revolution, for instance, Washington was faced with a proposal to use Virginia state taxes to pay church ministers. Washington took the step that Obama will not take in regards to the Ground Zero mosque: He reasoned beyond what can be done within the law to what should be done (still within the law, but in order to reach the best result). Washington wrote that he was not opposed to the state's imposing a tax to pay ministers, at least in principle. Yet, he told his fellow Virginian George Mason, he feared that enactment of the tax would 'rankle, & perhaps convulse the State.' Washington believed that any potential benefit from the religious activities themselves would be undermined. Washington wished the 'Bill could die an easy death; because I think it will be productive of more quiet to the State, than by enacting it into a Law.'
While "tolerance" is a term thrown around with abandon at diversity seminars across the nation today, it was also a concept that, as Ross and Smith point out, Washington deliberated on frequently, including a letter he authored to a Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island. "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship," he wrote. "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."
But Washington didn't stop there. "Tolerance" or "toleration" wasn't some free pass given to minority religious or ethnic groups to lash out an inconvenient social norms or bigotry. Just as it doesn't afford majority groups this same power. In a move Obama would likely never make, he instructed the Jewish congregation of its duties to America, instructing the congregation's members to "demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
It is too often said that America fundamentally changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks we suffered nine years ago. This is an exaggeration of massive proportions. We are the same people, but now we've been forced to wake up to the violence and hatred perpetuated by Muslim terrorists. We should also wake up to the fact that America is also home to thousands of America-loving Muslims.
While I disagree with Ross and Smith's conclusion that the Manhattan mosque should not be built, I couldn't agree more in their view that a President--any President--should have the courage to take a stand on an issue as controversial as this one.
We deserve a true leader, not a law professor. Mr. Obama, what do you really think?