Religious freedoms in 2010
At this point, most people have come down on one side or another regarding the proposed mosque to be constructed near to the site of the World Trade Center attacks in New York. Several of those same people are probably tired of hearing opinions on the subject, but as a New Yorker, I have been really bothered by some of the rhetoric that has been thrown around regarding a common sense interpretation of the nation"s laws on separation of church and state.
The Bill of Rights has been an enduring pillar that has shaped the national ideology pertaining to issues where one"s personal rights are in danger of being violated. It didn"t quite cover all the bases in 1791, but several subsequent Constitutional amendments have kept it modern and brought it up to speed. Any Government professor will tell you that while the Constitution is a seemingly straightforward document, it is open to several forms of interpretation. While I am not religious, I consider myself to be fundamentalist when it comes to my interpretation of the First Amendment. It is clear: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
While there is no serious possibility of a law being passed to block the construction of a mosque (as part of the "park51" project) two blocks near Ground Zero, the tone of the opposition to the mosque troubles me. While there has always been some form of a xenophobic vein in American culture, the years since September 11th have seen an intensity of emotion regarding issues concerning the Islamic religion, the Middle East and South Asia.
People will always have their own views, as well as the right to believe in them. But several of our nation"s political leaders have taken this right to the extreme of impinging upon the rights of others. The level of emotion surrounding the mosque"s construction is the product of several factors, but the two largest factors (in my opinion) are the importance of September 11th in the national consciousness and the intolerance of some elements of the American religious right. The September 11th attacks and the response to them were a major turning point in American foreign policy. Several of the political decisions made in the past nine years can be traced back to the attacks. The aftermath of the attacks also thrust religion into the national political discourse. While the constitution is clear about the separation of church and state, it is na?ve and unfair to expect a person to attempt to separate their political views from their religious views, as both concern how they live their life. The Republican Party has done an excellent job of drawing on that connection for political success.
It is one thing for a religion to be intolerant of another. Although religious cooperation is the ideal, history indicates a different reality. But the history of politics in the United States has consistently moved in a progressive expansion of tolerance. Looking at dates in American history, that statement needs some qualification. By the standards of 2010, the United States was not a tolerant place in 1776, 1812, 1865, 1945, etc. There were definitely several steps back along the way, but indisputably, progress has been made since 1776.
The fervent opposition to the mosque represents an egregious step back. While there has been opposition from across the political spectrum, it is explicitly the direction of the marriage between the religious right and the Republican Party that has gone too far in the past nine years. That connection between a religious element and a political party has always existed, but as of late, America"s political enemies have also fallen under a common religious banner, blurring the distinction between the two. Nonetheless, there needs to be a vigorous defense of religious freedom across that same political spectrum. As people, Republicans have the right to be opposed to whatever they see fit. But as politicians and legislators, they also have to respect and defend religious freedom as enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
The events of the past few months have confirmed a fear of mine: that it is overly optimistic to think that nine years is enough time for us to revert to a level of common sense obvious to some Americans 234 years ago.