At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt enters the fray on the Cordoba House controversy and notes that America’s founders understood that “trying to impose religious orthodoxy on the new republic was a recipe for endless strife.”
The principle of religious tolerance is not a piece of clothing that one can don or doff at will, or as the political winds shift. Indeed, it is most essential not when we are dealing with groups whose beliefs are close to our own and therefore familiar; the whole idea of “religious tolerance” is about accepting communities of faith that are different from our own and that might strike us at first as alien or off-putting. Tolerance doesn’t mean a thing if we apply it only to people who are already just like us.
The latest example of tortured reasoning on this subject was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s column a couple of days ago. Douthat explained the controversy as a struggle between “two Americas”: one of them based on the liberal principle of tolerance and the other based on the defense of a certain understanding of “Anglo-Protestant” culture.
In addition to glossing over the latter’s dark underbelly (slavery, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholic prejudice, etc.), Douthat’s main error was to view these two aspects of American society as of equal moral value. In his view, it’s legitimate to object to the community center because we have to respect the feeling of those Americans (including Douthat himself, one assumes) who believe that the United States is at its heart an “Anglo-Protestant/Catholic/Judeo-Christian” nation.
Even if one accepts this simplistic dichotomy, what Douthat fails to realize is that the history of the United States is the story of the gradual triumph of the first America over the second. The United States may have been founded (more-or-less) by a group of “Anglo-Protestants,” and defenders of that culture often fought rear-guard actions against newcomers whose practices were different (Jews, Catholics, Japanese, Chinese, etc.). But the founding principle of religious tolerance gradually overcame the various Anglo-Protestant prejudices, which allowed other groups to assimilate and thrive, to the great benefit of the country as a whole. The two America’s are not morally equivalent, and we should all be grateful that when those two Americas have come into conflict, it is the second America that has steadily given way to a broader vision of a free and open democracy.
The final disappointment, of course, has been the response of some prominent Democrats, despite the salutary example that Mayor Bloomberg set for them. President Obama gave a powerful defense of his own last week, and then promptly diluted his initial statement with some ill-advised waffling. (Obama’s desire to find common ground is sometimes admirable, but someone needs to remind him that when one side is right and the other is wrong, moving towards the middle is movement in the wrong direction.)
Even more disappointing was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s cowardly dissembling, in which he simultaneously claimed to support religious freedom but said he thought the community center should nonetheless be moved somewhere else.
Here’s the challenge I would pose to anyone pushing the “sensitivity” argument: How far from the site of the World Trade Center is an appropriately sensitive distance for constructing an Islamic center? Is some place else a few more blocks away or in another city? And what kinds of construction are or are not permissible inside the sensitivity zone?
These are of course redundant questions because the sanctity of so-called hallowed ground is not the issue. This is not about sacred ground; it’s about appealing to unreasoned sentiment. The demographic where politicians (and the press) make the easiest sale is filled with people who discern more clarity in their feelings than their thoughts. If it don’t feel right what more need one think or say? This is the sacred ground — untroubled by complexity — that the mosque’s critics so jealously defend.