Whipping Up Religious Frenzy

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” The words are Thomas Jefferson’s in a letter he wrote in 1813 to Baron Von Humboldt. The sentiments are not unusual for the Sage of Monticello.

Here’s another from our third President: “The preachers dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.” And he wasn’t alone, of course, among the Founding Fathers to disdain priests and churches. “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” queried our second President, John Adams.

And yet, according to Glenn Beck in a Washington Post opinion piece we should all be Catholic now “because the state is telling the Catholic Church to violate its principles and teachings” by trying to force church-run institutions to pay for birth control and morning-after pills.

The compromise offered by the White House whereby insurance providers take on the employers’ cost for these services is dismissed as “sin by proxy” by Beck – and by Catholic bishops. “The state has no right to say how much religion any American can practice. It’s our right, and it is the first one our Founding Fathers protected,” Beck argues.

In their Salem-like efforts to whip up a revivalist frenzy against President Barack Obama, Beck and other religious conservatives make much of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But they misread that amendment and abuse it.

The amendment doesn’t give the right of the church – any church – to create a parallel society that ignores general welfare; and the intent of the amendment was to protect thought and the expression of opinion – that is why the First Amendment deals not just with religion but with the press, too, and freedom of speech and assembly.

Notice that word Beck uses, “practice”. It isn’t there in the First Amendment and for good reason. Practice may well impact non-church members or involve behavior that offends or undermines the general welfare. It was the practice of Beck’s church, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, to engage in polygamous marriage. Does Beck believe that if the current Mormon president has a sudden revelation and reverses the church’s ban on polygamy, that Congress and law-enforcement agencies then should turn a blind eye and not enforce laws against bigamy against Mormons?

“This isn’t a fight over abortion or birth control,” writes Beck. “This is about whether the state can force someone to pay to have their religious beliefs violated.” The logical conclusion of that argument would mark the end of secular governance and would make hogwash of the Founding Father’s principle of separation of church and state. Suddenly we would have the anarchy of lots of parallel religious societies observing their own laws, following their own practices and claiming they don’t have to do anything, pay for anything that offends their religious beliefs.

It would be the end of the United States of America.

It is the kind of medieval argument mounted in Europe currently by Muslim fanatics who disdain pluralism, diversity and the whole basis of enlightened liberal governance and who want to impose Sharia law, if not for everyone at least for believers or within a defined geography.

In the UK last year residents of some London boroughs were horrified to be confronted with posters daubed on bus stops and street lamps declaring, “You are entering a Sharia-controlled zone – Islamic rules enforced,” and announcing a ban on gambling, music, alcohol, and smoking.

The preacher behind the campaign, Anjem Choudary,  said he wanted to “put the seeds down for an Islamic Emirate.” And here we have Beck wanting to turn the United States into an anarchy of theocracies.

In Defense of the American Soul

“We are engaged in a battle for the soul of America,” TV actor Joseph Phillips writes in the Daily Caller – a political journalism site I contribute to. Apparently the building of a mosque dedicated to the principles of integration, tolerance and inter-faith understanding two blocks from Ground Zero would mean America losing its soul.

Phillips’ argument goes thus: if the Muslims who want to build the mosque were really tolerant and understanding, they would build the mosque somewhere else, and anyway the only Americans supporting the mosque are leftists who just hate America. In fact, about half of Phillips’ article opposing the mosque is dedicated to a rant against leftists. An argument can be correct even if you don’t like the people making it.

He adds: “It is important to point out that there have been no pronouncements from opponents of the mosque that the American Society for Muslim Advancement does not have a right to build the mosque wherever they wish.  Opponents have simply asked that the building not be built in that location. What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.”

While Phillips recognizes Muslims constitutional right to build the mosque he can’t help but wonder why the federal government can’t step in to prevent it – a point that totally undermines his recognition of the rights of American (sic) Muslims. “I am fascinated that the same people who have been able to find a Constitutional right to government control of education, health care, and the energy industry are unable to divine from that same document any rational basis for the government to prevent a mosque from being built on Ground Zero,” he writes. So much for the constitutional rights of Muslims – if Phillips could have his way the feds would step in.

Why exactly the building of a mosque would be of such an affront necessitating the intervention of the federal government is not explained overtly, except for that talk of “offense and emotional injury.” So all we get in terms of true substance is a tautological argument – the mosque is an affront because it has caused offense. And then his article relies on the “secondary” argument: the mosque should be opposed because “hard-core leftists” who “do not respect America’s traditions or institutions” support it — in other words, traitors.

So, presumably Mayor Bloomberg is a leftist traitor. And apparently I am as well, even though I am an American by choice and not by accident. By the by, my 25 years of writing and journalism has seldom been characterized as leftist.

I don’t disagree with Phillips that this fight over the mosque is a fight for the soul of America. From my point of view the fight is over whether the country will stay true not only to the letter but more importantly the spirit of the Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution – the bedrocks of the United States of America. I can’t recall reading anywhere in either document any comments suggesting either that Muslims should not be allowed to build mosques or that they should not be permitted to build one in a place deemed sensitive or out-of-bounds by others. Yes, we have local zoning rules nowadays but the so-called Ground Zero mosque apparently does not infringe them.

In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution is uncompromising when it comes to the practice of religion – any religion and not just religions deemed “American” by Phillips or anyone else for that matter. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rights are at their most important when most under threat, when the clamor is at its loudest to deny them. Alas, when the Patriot Act was being forced through too few people were raising a hue and cry about the tremendous and disturbing civil rights violations it brought with it. Anyone who truly values the Constitution should be supporting the building of the mosque – and this has nothing to do with the left-right spectrum of American politics, or shouldn’t have.

The real affront that is going on in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque is that of seeing the First Amendment as unimportant or something that one is loyal to when convenient rather than uniformly and consistently.

There are other affronts, too. The opposition to the mosque relies on two other arguments, sometimes made openly and sometimes issuing more covertly. It relies heavily on the notions that American Muslims are somehow not real Americans and that all Muslims are somehow collectively responsible for 9/11 and the odious Osama bin Laden.

This is exactly what is implied when Newt Gingrich argues, as he did the other day, this: “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 sight next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” These are emotive but erroneous comparisons: German Nazism was a political ideology and Japan is a nation – Islam is a religion with Americans who are also adherents. The real comparison to make would be German Nazism with Al Qaeda – and as far as I am aware no one has shown that the proposed mosque is going to support Al Qaeda or the philosophy espoused by Osama bin Laden.

So now we have the added affronts from those who oppose the mosque – namely, their suggestion that there are different classes of Americans – some real and others not – and that a whole religion, or all the adherents of a religion, should be held accountable and responsible for the actions of a small minority claiming to speak in the name of that religion. That is the kind of language and thinking of Osama bin Laden and his medieval ilk. Are we to allow him and the radical Islamists to change us – to make us the mirror image of them? If we do so, then we have allowed him a victory and handed him something even more damaging to us than 9/11. We would have added to the risk of a war of religions.

And that is precisely the point that answers Phillips’ when he writes: “What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.” The Ground Zero mosque should go ahead in defiant answer to Osama bin Laden and to all those who would damage the soul of America and who fail to understand that you can’t pick and choose when it comes to the fundamental rights announced by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. It should go ahead because the people who want to build are American and want commemorate those who died at 9/11. It should go ahead because we don’t believe in collective punishment, unlike Al Qaeda.

Gingrich and those Republicans opposing the mosque may think they have stumbled on a Willie Horton moment ahead of the mid-term elections. But it is a Willie Horton moment profoundly damaging to the soul of America and one that they may well regret indulging in.