The national debate on the building of the Ground Zero mosque and community center has gone from isolated rants by right-wing bigots, to the point where an embarrassingly large percentage of Americans is showing its hatred, not merely of Muslims, but of the First Amendment and what it means.
The use of the word “but” to deny that the rights protected by the First Amendment have any real meaning or effect, is epidemic. For example, Harry Reid, utterly abandoning any pretense that he is in fact a Democrat, instead of a mild-mannered Republican, an endangered species anyway, claimed, via a spokesman:
“The First Amendment protects freedom of religion…but the mosque should be built some place else.”
One thing the First Amendment fortunately has no place for, particularly from cowardly members of Congress, is the word “but”. It makes no exceptions in its stark and powerful protections of the freedom of speech and religion. And the reason for this is that the founders well understood that once you started throwing “buts” around with politicians, your freedoms are in jeopardy.
Instead, the First Amendment plainly says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
It doesn’t say “BUT of course the free exercise shouldn’t upset anyone”.
Nor does it say “BUT the free exercise should only happen if most people are OK with it.”
The First Amendment in fact specifically ignores the feelings of the people, and particularly the majority of the people, respecting the free exercise of religion. This is to protect the freedom of what might be, as it is in this case, a persecuted minority.
And that takes us to the other side of this story, the intense hatred being directed at the American Muslim community, and at Islam, by many Americans who in fact know little or nothing about the religion or its worshippers. The one thing they are convinced is true however is that Islam, as a religion, launched the 9/11 attack, on the USA, and of course on Christianity. These Americans are convinced there is a world-wide religious war being waged, in which the USA is the defender of Christianity.
And that just happens to also be exactly what Osama bin Laden claims to be true as well. That so many Americans find a comfortable agreement with the commander-in-chief of the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 should give us serious concerns as well.
In that regard, the comments of Newt Gingrich on this issue are instructive, as they come from an alleged conservative intellectual, who presumably is giving what the Republican brain-trust counts as a reasonable and considered opinion on the matter.
“Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a Mosque next to the World Trade Center.”
This statement involves at least a couple of brands of bad arguing, weak analogies, and begging the question—actually, because of First Amendment guarantees of free speech, Nazis and Japanese people might very well have the right to do what Gingrich assumes they do not.
But, far more importantly, whereas Nazis and Japanese were at war with the USA at one time, Islam the religion is not, and was not in any way responsible, as an organized world-wide faith, for the attacks of 9/11. To suggest otherwise, as Newt Gingrich has done, is hysterical and bigoted and frankly, utterly un-American.
Gingrich probably knows his arguments are bad, but he also knows that his demagoguery will be effective on many people. In fact, most people’s interest in debates can be summed up by paraphrasing W. C. Fields, when he discovered that somebody had accidentally put orange juice in his “orange juice”—nobody really wants any debating in their debates.
What they want is plenty of high-octane affirmations to what they already feel to be true, to substitute for thinking about a critically important issue, such as respecting and protecting the First Amendment. And this respect for religious freedom counts for all the people, or the words, as Captain Kirk once eloquently put it, mean nothing.