American philosopher/psychologist William James is considered farsighted, since in the 1890s he coined the term “pluralism” meaning respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, no matter how alien or foreign.
Although this word is not found in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it captures the intent of the Founders in Article VI of the Constitution and the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which unambiguously prohibit any religious tests for public office, establishment of religion or prohibition of free exercise.
These safeguards were created in part because of the example of tolerance provided by William Penn and his Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, as well as by the practices of the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Interestingly, this hands-off policy has resulted in America becoming the most actively religious of the major democracies, as sociologists like Rodney Stark have demonstrated.
So why would anyone want to meddle with this winning formula?
That’s the question raised by the current controversy about the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. In my last column I stated that, in light of First Amendement guarentees, the only appropriate questions involved adherence to local building codes and zoning regulations — the same rules that would apply to the construction at that site of any building by anyone (including, I might add, the Dawkins Center for Atheism).
Therefore, it was encouraging to see our president apply a strict reading of the U. S. Constitution in his initial statement about this issue, an indication that he actually is a careful scholar of the constitutional law he taught at the University of Chicago.
In affirming the right of Muslims to build a center where they wished, just like any other religious body, President Obama concluded by saying: “This is America. Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.” (My italics)
Observing the reactions to the proposed building project over the past week, and to the president’s assessment of the principles involved, two distinct types of opinions are seen: the first, populist sentimentalism; the second, political opportunism and cynicism.
Populist sentimentalism is characterized by an acknowledgment that appeals to First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion are appropriate, but principles should bend to consideration of the feelings and needs of people who might be upset or offended. This is the terminal niceness voiced by those who genuinely do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Many commentators, politicians and religious leaders have fallen into this trap. Even the president himself obscured his initially clear pronouncement by expressing concern about offending sensibilities (and thus left himself vulnerable to charges of shucking and jiving). Unfortunately, he is not alone, joined by Gov. David Patterson of New York, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy M. Dolan, and many others. Yes, they say, you have the right to build, but couldn’t you move it a few blocks or a few miles just to keep everyone happy. This raises the inevitable question, how close is too close for comfort and how far is far enough?
Ironically, this sensitivity is voiced by many of the same people who argued that nominees for seats on the Supreme Court should not be expected to rule on the basis of their empathy for litigants. Like Inspector Javert, their rulings should be directed only by a strict reading of the law. Then again, whose sensitivites should trump the Constitution in this case: relatives of some victims of the outrageous 9/11 attack, New Yorkers, out-of-towners who just don’t like Muslims? And what about the sensitivities of the one percent of our population that is Muslim?
It’s interesting that, to date, those who have stood up most clearly for constitutional principles include Mayor MIchael Bloomburg of New York and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. (I’d include Jon Stewart of TVs Daily Show in this honor roll, but that might be considered frivolous.)
Please keep one consideration in mind: adhering to the rule of law does not mean we’ll always feel comfortable about the consequences. Sometimes eternal discomfort is the price of liberty.
Second, political opportunism and cynicism seem to be prime motivators for the posturing of extremist elitists. It is obvious that right-wing opponents of the president and his party consider this brouhaha an ideal wedge issue to divert public attention from some topics they may want to avoid, like their positions on unemployment, consumer protection, financial reform, and the questionable policy positions of candidates like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul.
It’s interesting that two of the leading potential candidates for the 2012 presidental election among Republican voters, Sarah Palin (who has a 76% favorable rating among the base) and Newt Gingrich (with a 64% favorable rating) have been among the most vocal critics of Obama and the Islamic center site. Gingrich’s demogogic posturing is particularly distrubing, especially in light of his attempts to position himself as a responsible conservative. As an erstwhile historian, he should know better.
Political observers differ as to whether the mosque issue will help or hurt the efforts of Republican and Tea Party-affiliated candidates in the upcoming mid-term election. The latest Pew Research findings, reported on NPR today, suggest that a growing number of people believe incorrectly that President Obama is a Muslim, a perception that the mosque issue could be affecting. (Why would he support this if he wasn’t one of them? Anyway, I don’t know what a mainline Protestant believes.)
Opponents of construction of the Islamic Center raise questions about the motives of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam leading the building effort, and about the international impact of its construction on Muslims around the world. As in all questions of faith, its irrelevant to ask about the motives or the sincerity of actions driven by belief. If you’re not a Mormon or a Muslim, it’s not helpful to speculate about why they want to build a temple or a mosque. We accept their decisions on faith, so to speak,
William Dalrymple, a student of Eastern religions, argues that Imam Rauf’s center would not be seen as a sign of the triumph of Islam in America. He points out that Rauf is considered a leader of American Sufism, a branch of Islam considered heretical by violent Wahhabi jihadists because they are too tolerant. Sufi temples have been destroyed in Pakistan, followers have been killed, and the Taliban would “…no doubt consider [Rauf] as a legitimate target for assassination.”
The only cause that should triumph in this conflict is the endurance of the U. S. Constitution. And that is what will be seen in New York City, by the nation at large, and by worldwide adherents to the second largest faith on earth when an Islamic center is built.
For more info: The reactions of William James to the changing role of America in the world are described in Evan Thomas, The war lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the rush to empire, 1898 (2010).
My own analysis of the mosque conflict has been clarified by Ross Douthat, Islam in two Americas. The New York Times, August 16, 2010, p. A17, although he gives more credence to popular sentiment than I do. I agree with Maureen Dowd who accused Obama of “Clintonesque parsing” in his later comments on the issue. See her column, Our mosque madness. The New York Times, August 18, 2010, p. A21.
See William Dalrymple, The Muslims in the mddle. The New York Times, August 17, 2010, p. A25. He notes that Rauf’s sermons “…preach love, the remembrance of God (or ‘zikr’) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra.” In the eyes of Muslim extremists “…he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate.”
Gallup poll favorability ratings on potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates by their base are given by Charles M. Blow, Dog days of Obama. The New York Times, July 17, 2010, p. A19.
See Javier C. Hernandez, Archbishop supports relocating planned Islamic Center. The New York Times, August 19, 2010, p. A22.
I know there’s a difference between a mosque and an Islamic Center and I admit to succumbing to journalistic shorthand.