Republicans and conservatives (virtually indistinguishable, these days) have been better at creating a narrative for their political philosophy than Democrats and liberals (at least in my lifetime). They "tell a story" about their political beliefs, and it's a story anyone can relate to, mostly invoking words like "freedom" and "liberty" but also holding sacred "private property" and severely frowning on "big government" which is perennially "on the backs" of the little guy. See, I don't even have to tell their whole story, just a few quick references, and the story pops into your mind in completion. You already know how the rest of this story goes, in other words.
But this is not an article decrying the Democrats' seeming inability to match Republican rhetoric in the public mind, as that's what we do around here on Fridays. Ahem.
Instead, I am amazed once again (even though I really shouldn't be by this point) at how adept Republicans and conservatives (but not hardcore Libertarians, I have to admit, who generally put their political philosophy above pandering to the public) are at suddenly throwing large parts of their core ideology over the side of the boat whenever something is happening (or about to happen) that they just don't agree with on a gut level. "Get the government off everyone's back!" very quickly becomes: "Get the government into your bedroom, your end-of-life decisions, or what chemicals you choose to ingest in the privacy of your own home -- and do it in a manner which we agree with!"
Now, we can add to this list of blatant hypocrisy on the grand question of what government should decide for you (where the conservatives are actually on the side of big government.... if not Big Brother) the new cause of the Right: "Give the government control over houses of worship." Again, all that talk of "private property" being a sacred right just flies right out the window when conservatives see some other type of house of worship which they don't like.
To be fully accurate, I have to coin a term here -- what we are talking about is the "Two Blocks Away From Ground Zero Mosque." Republicans have gone ballistic over this issue, because they smell an exploitable red flag to wave in front of their base. That it utterly contradicts their political philosophy seems to bother them not at all.
Stripped of all the ridiculous bombast, the issue boils down to: should you be able to build a house of worship on private property, or should the government be able to tell you that you can't? The building in question is two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. It is not "holy ground" by any stretch of the imagination, unless you want to call all of lower Manhattan "holy ground" (which, apparently, Newt Gingrich is fine with doing). This is nonsense, squared.
We do have "sacred" (even though it's kind of a misuse of the term) monuments in this country. Gettysburg National Battlefield is a good example. War sites from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War are hallowed ground. We, as a nation, have taken possession of these spots, and have a whole National Park Service set up to maintain them and inform visitors of what happened there. There are dozens of such sites (memorializing pretty much all our wars) all over this nation. The property is held by the United States government for all the people, so that private enterprise can't exploit them (or otherwise ruin them).
But the process of getting a site named a national sacred spot is a long one, and the federal government doesn't even pay to build war memorials anymore -- they graciously agree to maintain the site after private money builds it (see: Vietnam, World War II memorials, on the National Mall). This is what happened to the 9/11 crash site in Pennsylvania, by the way.
But the World Trade Center is being rebuilt. Now, the federal government could quite easily have grabbed the land (I don't like using the term "Ground Zero," as -- to me -- it should be reserved for the sites of nuclear explosions), made it the "9/11 National Memorial" and built a nice little park on it, with some monuments and plaques. But the government did not do so. Instead, construction began, to rebuild the World Trade Center. Obviously, there will be a corner of the site tucked away as a memorial, and the federal government may eventually assume responsibility for it, so you can ask a park ranger all about it.
But that's it, as far as "holy ground" goes. This is not my determination, this was the government's choice. So how can anyone decree that a site two blocks away is somehow "sacred ground" or think they can dictate what happens there in any way? That building is owned privately. The owner of the building can do anything they wish with it, as long as they follow zoning and building codes imposed by the city of New York. End of sentence.
This, I hasten to point out is what the conservative position on the issue should be. You don't even have to look past the First Amendment to see why this is so (which all those conservatives who have taken to carrying around a copy of the Constitution -- because it's the hip thing to do these days on the Right -- really should do). Freedom of religion. Freedom of assembly. Original intent. Case closed.
I bet that if you had taken a poll, before this controversy was pushed on the scene, that virtually every conservative in America would have agreed with the following: "I think the government has no business telling a house of worship what they can and can't do with their private property." But I'm being disingenuous, of course. Because most conservatives, when they hear "house of worship" immediately equate it with "church" -- and not "synagogue" or (shudder) "mosque." It's the classic human "us and them" problem. There is "us" -- however you define that (some conservatives are even quite open about proclaiming America a "Christian nation," although some hedge their bets with "Judeo-Christian"); and then there is "them" -- whoever the current spectre of fear is. Currently, "them" is "Muslims," as this whole controversy shows.
Newt Gingrich and his ilk want to have the power to tell different groups of people where they may and may not worship. And somehow, the boogieman of "big government" or even "power grab" never surfaces among a segment of the media who is usually quite quick on the trigger with those two terms and government power -- at least when Democrats are in control, that is. But that's what the controversy is all about -- wanting to dictate who may worship where.
And that is so downright un-American, it makes my teeth ache just thinking about it.
The current mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, gave a speech today on why the mosque will be built. I'm not a big fan of Bloomberg (I'm not a big enemy, either, just don't pay that much attention to him), but I have to say, he says in his speech exactly what I have been waiting for someone to say about this ugly bit of bigotry from the Right. So I'll close here with his speech, in full (or you can watch the video of his speech):
We've come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor. And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That's what makes New York special and different and strong.
Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it's sustained by immigrants -- by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.
We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life. And it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.
On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn't want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here -- in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance -- was hard-won over many years.
In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.
In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter's on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.
This morning, the city's Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to extend -- not to extend -- landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.
The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.
Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.
For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.
On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, "What God do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?"
The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.
Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. But doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam.
Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.
Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant