I’ve been reading some of the criticism of President Obama’s remarks last night in which he offered support for the building of a mosque and community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks. As most people are aware, the plans are controversial.
Nearly all of the criticism against the president's comments fall into the category of partisan political attacks from people willing to use religion as a wedge issue during the mid-term elections. When former House Speaker and 2012 presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich says the president’s words last night about religious freedom in the United States amounted to nothing more than “pandering to radical Islam” and that the mosque would represent Muslim “triumphalism” you hear echoes of voices past that have sought to divide Americans on issues such as religion, race and even gender for political gain.
President Obama said last night:
Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practice religion. In the Virginia Act for Establishing Religion Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” The First Amendment of our Constitution established the freedom of religion as the law of the land. And that right has been upheld ever since.
Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose – including the right to believe in no religion at all. And it is a testament to the wisdom of our Founders that America remains deeply religious – a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe.
Leading religious leaders from across the nation spoke out on this issue earlier in the week:
As Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders and scholars committed to religious freedom and inter-religious cooperation, we are deeply troubled by the xenophobia and religious bigotry that has characterized some of the opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque near where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, is the most recent prominent opponent to cast this debate in a way that demonizes all Muslims and exploits fear to divide Americans. "It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way," Gingrich said in a statement. Sarah Palin called plans for the center a "provocation." Fox News has aired a steady stream of irresponsible commentary and biased coverage that reduces what should be a civil debate into starkly combative terms.
The profound tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 revealed the horror that can unfold when a small minority of violent extremists manipulates religious language for political gain and falsely claims to represent one of the world's great religions. We have witnessed this sinful corruption of religion across faith traditions throughout history and must condemn it without equivocation whenever or wherever it occurs. However, we fail to honor those murdered on that awful day - including Muslim Americans killed in the Twin Towers and Pentagon - by betraying our nation's historic commitment to religious liberty, fueling ugly stereotypes about Islam and demeaning the vast majority of Muslims committed to peace. The proposed mosque would be part of Cordoba House, a center open to all Americans that will provide Islamic, interfaith and secular programs. The project aims to support "integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture," according to the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes improved "Muslim-West relations." These are exactly the kind of efforts that foster dialogue, break down barriers and begin to build a world where religiously inspired violent extremism is less likely.
Mr. Gingrich, Ms. Palin and other prominent voices privileged to have the ear of the media would make a more lasting contribution to our nation if they stopped issuing inflammatory statements and instead helped inspire a civil dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims committed to a future guided by the principles of compassion, justice and peace. Fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric only undermine treasured values at the heart of diverse faith traditions and our nation's highest ideals.
The critics of the president’s remarks - and more generally, of the Cordoba Initiative - are, in fact, attacking some of the most fundamental and hard fought of American values: religious freedom and tolerance. We need leaders today who seek reconciliation and unity and not the division offered by so many on the right. President Obama may have taken a position that is unpopular but he upheld one of our most cherished principles and his remarks may have the impact of changing popular opinion over the long term. He is to be applauded.