Cross-posted from Wonk Room.
In 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, affirming the values of tolerance and religious freedom that he saw as the bedrock of the country that he had had helped found, and done so much to secure. "The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy," Washington wrote, "a policy worthy of imitation."
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. 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. 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. [...]
May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Americans would do well to re-read Washington's letter, as an increasing number of them clearly seem intent on rejecting the principles of freedom and tolerance that it celebrates. I'm referring, of course, to the conservative hysteria over the Cordoba House Islamic Center -- known in the media as the "Ground Zero Mosque" -- in lower Manhattan.
What started as just another wingnut obsession has now bubbled up from the right-wing sewer into mainstream conservative discourse.
On July 20, Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that "To build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks" -- ignoring the fact that some of those innocent victims happen to be Muslim-Americans.
Last week, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich published a piece in Human Events and delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that trafficked in the worst sort of stereotypes of Muslims and Islam, using discredited anecdotes to cynically cultivate Americans' fear of their Muslim countrymen and where they choose to site their houses of worship.
On Fox News yesterday, pundits Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney piled on, asserting that the man behind the project -- Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf -- has "has ties to radical Islamist terror." I contacted Keep America Safe today for some evidence for Kristol and Cheney's charge -- one that most people would regard as pretty serious -- but the organization's press representative refused to provide any sources on the record.
This is deeply offensive stuff. Here we have a faction of conservatives targeting their fellow Americans simply on the basis of their religion, purely for political profit. If Gingrich, Palin, Kristol and Cheney think that George Washington was wrong about American tolerance and religious freedom, let them say so. But let the rest of us understand this: The debate over the Ground Zero Mosque is, in fact, a debate over American values. Those who oppose it don't have them.