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August 16th, 2010
04:18 PM ET

My Take: Bloomberg and Obama doing the right thing near near ground zero

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

After 9/11 there was a chance that the American public might call for a war on Islam, and that American politicians might heed that call. But President Bush demonstrated leadership. Although he would have gained political capital among his born-again Christian base by attacking Islam, he insisted that our fight was not against Islam but against evil.

In rhetoric that would now be considered impolitic even among liberal Democrats, President Bush said that Islam is a peaceful religion—“a faith based upon love, not hate,” adding that “America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith.”

After the controversy erupted over the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near ground, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg might have looked at the polling data and joined many of his fellow Republicans in denouncing not only that project but also Islam.

That certainly would have been the politically expedient thing to do, since according to a Siena College poll released earlier this month, New Yorkers oppose the project by a 61 to 26 percent margin.

Like President Bush, however, Mayor Bloomberg showed leadership instead.  Calling this controversy “[as] important [a] test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes,” he insisted in a speech delivered in front of the Statue of Liberty not only on the property rights of the developer but also on his rights to religious expression.

President Obama could have side-stepped this controversy on the perfectly reasonable ground that it is a purely local issue that should be handled by local officials. But Republicans from Georgia to Alaska ratcheted this question of the "ground zero mosque" up into a national referendum on Islam and religious freedom, Obama felt the need to weigh in on Friday in a speech at the traditional White House dinner celebrating the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. 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.

On Saturday, Obama expanded on his remarks, telling CNN he was “not commenting . . . on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque" near ground zero but “on the right people have that dates back to our founding,” adding, “In this country, we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion."

In the tediously predictable performance art that followed, Republicans body slammed into the president. Texas’s Republican Senator John Cornyn accused Obama of being “disconnected from the mainstream of America.” Peter King, a Republican Congressman from New York, complained that “the President caved into political correctness.”

But as Cornyn and King know all too well, the correct thing to do, politically, was precisely what they were doing.

There has been much thunder from the right in recent weeks about doing the right thing at this Park51 site. Channeling Sarah Palin, the Anti-Defamation League contended in its statement against this Islamic community center and mosque that “ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.”

But the three Republican presidential frontrunners who have come out against this project–Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich–are not doing what is right. They aren't even doing what is conservative. They are doing what is politically expedient. Instead of leading, they are following the polls.

Once upon a time, American politicians saw themselves as leaders. They accepted the responsibility not simply to take the temperature of mainstream America but also to diagnose its ills. That requires courage, however, a virtue that is as rare as a moderate in the 111th Congress.

To be fair, there are Republicans who have refused to throw the red meat of Muslim-baiting to their red state supporters. But anybody who can count knows that Republicans can scapegoat Muslims, who account for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population (and many of them African Americans), on the cheap. And apparently most Republicans can count.

But sometimes you have to stand up for what is right. That’s what President Bush did after 9/11. It’s what Mayor Bloomberg did on Governors Island. And it’s what President Obama did on the eve of Ramadan.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Barack Obama • Islam • Muslim • New York • Politics • Religious liberty • Sarah Palin • United States

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. Xenophob

    @praying

    really? Do you not know the basics of the catholic faith? They believe that non Catholics will not go to heaven? Don't be so blinded and naive. It's not just your faith that prays for world peace and yes your faith is also intolerant too. Let me clarify, individuals and their own interpretation are intolerant.

    August 26, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  2. Praying

    In my church, we pray for world peace. Muslums, beleive that, those that are not muslems, are infidels and do not deserve to live ! Yet muslems want to call christans intolerant ? Who is really the intolerant group ?

    August 20, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  3. Mariah

    Frogist... If we are not a Christian nation, then why is "In God we trust" on our money and why do we say "one nation under God"... I hold a county position where I live and we are NOT allowed to say "Merry Christmas" and at my daughters' school I am not allowed to give the kids in their class anything pertaining to Christmas... Sounds like my rights as a Christian have been taken away. You can deny it all you want Frogist, but we are a Christian nation... When the constitution was written, those that created it weren't planning on Muslims coming to this nation... More then likely they probably didn't know such religions existed. Freedom of religion was created to give protestants the right to separate from the catholic church without persecution... Same goes for freedom of speech... They had no idea that TVs, radios, and the internet were going to be created... They were referring to the spoken language and printed material... Freedom to knowing what was going on in the government, not to be able to put things such as pornographic material on the internet...

    Going back to the matter at hand... If they have a problem with Christians or they want to be so strong headed about their religion, then they should go back to their country. This issue is a matter of ethics and they see how many fellow Americans are outraged by their plans and yet they want to turn their backs on them, and hurt them, just so they can "practice their religious freedoms" so they say.

    They just want to make people angry... What about the Greek Orthodox Church that was actually destroyed during 9/11... They have been trying for years to get a permit to rebuild, but the port authority is giving them the run around. They had a church there before 9/11 even happened and they can't get permission to rebuild, but a MUSLIM MOSQUE GETS PERMISSION! What is wrong with that picture?!!!!!! The whole situation makes me sick... If people can't accept the fact that WE ARE A CHRISTIAN NATION, (and we are frog) then they need to go back to their country.

    August 19, 2010 at 3:31 am |
  4. Steve

    How dare Mayor Bloomberg speak of studying the Constitution in his seventh or eighth grade civics class and then cite the First Amendment. NY has declared the Second Amendment null and void through too many laws to cite here, maybe his studies stopped after the First Amendment was covered. Mayor Bloomberg, there are 26 more Amendments, the first 10 are known as the Bill of Rights.

    Shame on you Mayor Bloomberg for cherry picking from our Constitution, a document you clearly don’t believe in.

    August 19, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  5. Notuagain

    @NonSenseArguments...LOL! You are right...I surrender. Thanks! sometimes we need to see the ridicolusness of our own words...I have seen the light! You actually made me go back and rereaD, i STILL AM LAUGHING.

    August 18, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  6. Mariah

    This isn't a question about whether the decision to build the mosque is legally right or wrong, because we know that legally a mosque can be built anywhere! But whether it is morally right or wrong, that is the question that is being asked. Out of all the places in NYC, why do they have to build a mosque there? Seeing what an uproar it is causing and how many people it is hurting, people who had their loved ones so brutally taken away, why would they want to go ahead with the project?

    They say Islam is a religion of peace and yet, knowing that building this mosque at the 9/11 site would cause a wave of anger to sweep through the nation, they would proceed with their plans anyway, is contradicting and anything far from peace promoting. I think the United States has bent over backwards enough...

    We've bent over backwards so much that the religion this nation was founded upon, Christianity, is being dismantled. We can't even say "Merry Christmas" anymore because we might "offend" someone. I guarantee if we were to go to the middle east they wouldn't cease celebrating Ramadan so that they wouldn't offend their Christian visitors or citizens.

    Just as when we have to be respectful when visiting a Hindu country, Buddhist country, or Islamic country, they need to respect our countries beliefs which happened to be founded upon Christianity. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism only make up 4% of the US religions, with 76% of us being Christians.

    In closing, I think this mosque situation is just to cause an uproar in the united states. To further divide the citizens and our government, and a way for the developers to show the United States that Islam is going to have its way in America and for Christianity to hop in the back seat.

    August 18, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • Frogist

      Mariah, we do not legislate on moral grounds. Neither do we prevent a group of americans from exercising their religious right because someone feels bad. No one is attacking christianity just because we have a diversity of people living here and practising their religion here. No one is stopping you from saying Merry Christmas. And one more time: this is not a christian nation... we are a secular democracy.

      August 18, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  7. Scott

    If a NYC mosque was bombed by a group of Christians, would Newt and Sara condem plans to build a Christian church close to the former mosque site? Don't let fundamentalist fearmongers either here or abroad turn us into a nation of cowards who are afraid to exercise our rights or support others exercising theirs.

    August 18, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  8. Talon 90

    If Muslims wants to help heal the wounds of 9/11, they should help facilitate the 9/11 memorial, not disrespect the pain they're causing for the thousands of families whose husbands, wives, sons, and daughters were killed in that area and whose remains were found blocks away. As one columnist wrote: "It's why Pope John Paul II ordered the Carmelite nuns to leave the convent they had established at Auschwitz. He was in no way devaluing their heartfelt mission to pray for the souls of the dead. He was teaching them a lesson in respect: This is not your place; it belongs to others. However pure your voice, better to let silence reign. Yes, the Islamic terrorist strain represents only a minority of Muslims. Islam is no more intrinsically Islamist than present-day Germany is Nazi - yet despite contemporary Germany's innocence, no German of goodwill would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka. No convent at Auschwitz - and no mosque at Ground Zero. Build it anywhere but there." …Just because you have the "right" to do something, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

    August 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • Frogist

      Two things: The convent was converted from a building that housed the gas used to kill the occupants of the concentration camp. The cultural center is in an old Burlington Coat Factory.
      Also the cross that was erected by the nuns is directly outside the prison wall, not two blocks away amid a bunch of other buildings. These are some vital differences if you are talking about an affront to sensibilities. But in the end it comes down to this – you may not like it, but your tastes do not and should not override the right of religious freedom.

      August 18, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
    • Mariah

      Talon I'm with you... As I said in my statement below, we're not asking them to give up their religious freedoms, but to have compassion and try to prevent further suffering of the victims of 9/11... I'm sure there's plenty of other spots for them to build their mosque. Why MUST they have this one? I brought up the Greek Orthodox Church that is has been trying to get a permit from the port authority to "rebuild" after their church was actually destroyed during the attacks... It's been how long and they still haven't been granted permission to begin to rebuild. So why is this? They can't "rebuild" but the Muslims are allowed to open up a new mosque? Talk about religious freedoms being taken away...

      August 19, 2010 at 3:37 am |
    • Mariah

      Also, has anybody received an "Awaiting moderation approval" message after posting? If I'm the only one, I'd really like to know why...

      August 19, 2010 at 3:40 am |
  9. RightTurnClyde

    This is not about the First Amendment or freedom of speech or freedom of religion. The government does not hesitate to arrest Christians for praying in a private home, issuing an edict calling Christians terrorists, forcing Christians to remove Nativity settings, ordering crosses to be removed from hills (even on private property). This is about the Democrats getting the Muslim vote. It's the same reason they won't enforce the border but call Arizona a racist state if they enforce the border. This is all about partisan politics plain and simple.

    August 18, 2010 at 2:14 am |
    • Frogist

      Yeah that 1% of muslims will obviously put those dems way over the top in the next election... Oh wait... no. I think your math might be a bit off.

      August 18, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  10. david

    Everyone will have there own perspective and make their argument fit that perspective. Both sides have legiminate points to ponder. It's unfortunate that we have radicals on both sides who believes terror is the answer. These actors believe they have the right to force you to believe in there way or die. It has nothing to do with the mosque but their way of believing. We therefore need to rid ourselfs of these kind of believers. Religion has nothing to do with it.

    August 18, 2010 at 1:21 am |
  11. NonSenseArguments

    I hope you guys can get into some serious arguments about this topic vs insulting one another! Non sense!!!

    August 18, 2010 at 12:13 am |
    • Chaim

      @NonSenseArguments

      LOL

      August 18, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  12. JimmyG

    An even-handed article. How ironic that Bush did and said similar things during his time in office.

    "When freedom rings hollow with the sound of money, only the poor cry for freedom."

    What freedom can we find for ourselves in the trash heap of history?

    A tattered freedom blown about by every breeze.

    August 17, 2010 at 9:23 am |
    • Rambler

      @JimmyG Where is that quote from? I don't see it in the article.

      August 17, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  13. PhysicsRus

    @Notuagain

    Thank you. I appreciate honesty as water in the desert.

    August 17, 2010 at 8:27 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.