Freedom of religion is one of the most hallowed tenets of the American constitutional system. Yet there is no consensus about just what it means in practice. The current controversy over the proposal to build a mosque and community center in lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero, taps into a long-running argument about just how separate Church and State ought to be.
The relevant clause of the First Amendment is this familiar line: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Over time, the states gradually conformed to the same stance, a stance reinforced by the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment as extending the Bill of Rights to the states. This is the ground for a long and robust tradition of a highly religious society that is open to a wide range of religious expression.
There is another equally robust tradition, though, which is rooted in the established churches that prevailed in the majority of the colonies, and persisted in a few states well into the nineteenth century. Our population was from the start largely Christian and predominantly Protestant. Before the Civil War this fed the nativist Know Nothing movement directed largely against Catholic immigrants (mostly Irish). Anti-Catholicism remained an important component of Republican politics after the Civil War, as the Irish and later Italian Catholics gained citizenship and tended to become Democrats.
Anti-Semitism, or prejudice against Jews, has been a constant presence among the nativist right wing, but has seldom resonated deeply with the larger population. Even in the conservative antebellum South, Jews were an important presence, seemingly more acceptable than Catholics. Indeed, Jews have not merely been tolerated, they have achieved remarkable successes across all areas of American society.
The cultural tensions that have divided American society since the 1960s have fundamentally redrawn these historic lines of division. Now, many white Catholics as well as Protestants, and even some Jews, are concerned with the current wave of Latin American immigration, particularly the illegal movement of Mexicans and Central Americans across the southern border. Many of these same people reacted to the 2001 terrorists attacks by turning a hostile eye on Muslims in general.
It is in this overheated context that we have the controversy over the proposed mosque in lower Manhattan. It is basically an argument between the first tradition and the second, between those who celebrate religious liberty for all, including Muslims, and those who see this country as fundamentally, organically Christian, and who would repay the zealotry of the 9/11 terrorists with sweeping intolerance of Muslims in general.
It is true that opponents of this particular mosque are at pains to affirm that they don’t oppose it being built somewhere else. But they wouldn’t impose such a condition on any other faith. The implicit message is that Muslims are the enemy. The irony is that many of these same people have supported the “war on terror” since 2001, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the appearance of American intolerance toward Muslims is sure to undermine those efforts.
There is a more fundamental issue: if we allow our response to be governed by intolerance, we deal a hard blow to the version of America that embodies freedom of religion for all. Will we then turn in upon ourselves, resentful and repressive towards the Other, and terrified to live by our own truth?
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University