Destroying America to Save It: Reflections on a Mosque

mosque istanbulFreedom 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.

john-peeler.gifThere 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?

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University


  1. says

    Dear Narrow minded comment-ers, who seem full of anti-Muslim hate’

    Get over your irrational fears and prejudices and begin to deal with the world as it really is rather than the paranoid vision that scares the decency out of you. Even your Christian God was, according to the New Testament, a God who had his Son teach forgiveness, love, beauty, and a social gospel designed to bring people together and alleviate human hurt and suffering. The hatred that you exhibit has nothing in common with the teachings of your prophet so either you don’t believe the teachings, you are hypocrites, you are not serious people or maybe you are irrational fundamentalists like the people you hate. No matter which category you are you need to do some serious work on yourself and seek to move to a more moral and rational approach to life.

    The filth you spew is unfounded in reality and evinces racialism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance but thanks for expressing your views so the rest of us may learn from them and avoid the same pitfalls.

  2. Marshall says

    The difference between Muslim and the other major religions in America is our religion is not also our form of government. The court in Iran that allows a person to be stoned on the word of one witness against you is the local pastor of the local Muslim faith. For the US to be the same, we would have the local pastor of the faith of the accused, to be the judge. That would also happen if you did not have a faith, one will be assigend to you. You can not compare a religion that is a government with those that are not. This is why we did not want a state religion, too much power when the two are one.

    Some faiths have a history of building a church at the site of a great victory, such a idea MAY be in the mind of the ground zero church. As our southern border is not secure, I would have some worry about a bomb being built somewhere near ground zero to complete the mission, remember we are dealing with loons who will put a bomb in their underware or any other place.

  3. Elaine says

    Our promise to all of those that died on 9/11/2001 that we would never forget is something that we, as Americans, to give in to those that are so insensitive to the family and friends of those that were lost that day is a horrible mistake. This man, Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf, after the attacks on 9/11 had the audacity to go on 60 minutes on September 30, 2001 and said that US policies were an accessory to the attacks on 9/11/01, that we have been accessories of people dying in the world and that Osama bin Ladin is made in the USA. This man is no friend to America. Ralph Peters wrote in Real Politics “this ground-zero mosque complex would be a symbol – not of reconciliation and tolerance, but of the greatest triumph of violent Jihad in three centuries: 9/11…. “this mega-mosque complex will be interpreted by hard line fanatics as a monument to their 9/11 victory.” I believe this in every bone in my body. We owe those that died to keep their memories alive and give in to those that want to diminish their memory by letting this Mosque to be built. Their souls and screams as they jumped from the building or were burned alive or crushed by the building falling and not only those that worked in the building but the firefighters and policemen and all the heroes of that day I think are in the winds of New York City and they should be remembered for the good in them and not have that image even touched by the will of this man who is not a friend of America but a man that blames the people of America for being attacked!?! Mayor Bloomberg I am sure is a nice man but if he allows this Mosque to be built there he will end up being the most hated Mayor in the United States. We expected this out of Obama because he has Muslim relatives and he and Eric Holder want to give those that were captured a trial by the courts in New York City under the guidelines of our Constitution. The reason Holder is not going to tell his decision until after November is because he does not want the Democrats, Liberals, & Progressives hurt by his decision in the polls. I got news for Holder, we know what he is planning and we will do everything we can to stop it. God Bless America!

  4. says

    Peeler’s article sheds no light because it’s not based on knowledge of the subject. Freedom of religious belief is one thing, religious practices a quite different one. What if Aztecs tried to set up a temple anywhere in the U.S. to perform daily human sacrifices? What if they demanded that the govt. supply them with sacrificial victims? What if the Mormon Church began performing polygamous marriages again? These would be bad, but a study of Islam’s history shows it to be far worse. The thing that makes Islam different is that it comes with a culture and all-embracing sociolegal system called Sharia that literally tries to take over the govt. and make Muslims superior to non-Muslims politically and socially, and tramples the rights of all others, including women and gays. Its basic principles are at total war with our Constitution and Bill of Rights. As such, the govt.’s recent permission to allow Muslims to immigrate straight from Muslim countries where Islam is the official religion and tolerance of non-Muslims is nil to the U.S. is unwise, and can and will lead to endless cultural war which could escalate to civil war if the Muslim pop. gets big enough. Tolerating the intolerant may be big of you, but is it a wise policy for the govt.? That Islam has a political aspect takes it out of the realm of religion and makes it subject to govt. control, just like Communism or Fascism. So rather than try to act noble and above the “heated” fray, why not wake up and learn about Islam first, then pontificate on it?

    • Tom says

      Gee, it probably would be a good idea to wake up and learn” first, then speak from some knowledge instead of just from Republican Party/Teabag talking points.

      Learn, perhaps, about the 1st Amendment, which does not talk about “belief” but rather about the “free exercise” of religion. And, yes, the Courts have interpreted that free exercise to NOT include human or even animal sacrifice.

      One might wonder how polygamy causes harm to others, just as Judge Walker so clearly reviewed the evidence which DISPROVES the bigot claim that gay marriage harms others.

      Moslem history is diverse, like Christian history. The Moslems didn’t start the Crusades. Medieval Moslem societies were far more tolerant than any Christian society. But Moslem fundamentalists do present a different view.

      When complaining about Sharia law one mustn’t ignore (or deny) the press for “Christian” law. Think of all the people who want the law to require that every student study the 10 Commandments, or have mandatory school prayer. Go back to your example of the Christian majority forcing the anti-Christian Mormons to abandon their religious belief in polygamy as a condition for joining the United States. Or the more current example of Christians working so hard, spending so many hundreds of millions of their own dollars AND OUR TAX dollars trying to enforce their religious bigotry in anti-gay laws.

      Intolerance is vile. Willful ignorance, or intentional misstatements of history for the purpose of defending bigotry is worse.

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