July 23rd, 2010
11:35 AM ET

My Take: No conservatism in Gingrich's attack on the ground zero mosque

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

This week, Newt Gingrich joined Sarah Palin in expressing his opposition to the Islamic community center and mosque at ground zero.

Palin’s argument, while wrongheaded, was better. Her appeal was to “common decency.” Don’t build the mosque, she wrote, out of respect for the dead and out of sensitivity to those who lost loved ones on 9/11.

Gingrich’s argument, by contrast, was simply bizarre.

In a macho manifesto that echoed some of the most hateful comments attacking my earlier post supporting the ground zero mosque on religious liberty grounds, Gingrich wrote, “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”

Really? Since when has Saudi Arabia been the model for American civil liberties? And if it is our model, why don’t we follow it more rigorously, banning all mosques from all America, or for that matter all non-Christian places of worship?

And while we are at it, why stop at violating our citizens’ religious liberties? Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow political parties and severely restricts freedom of speech. So perhaps we should outlaw New York’s Republican and Democratic parties until Saudi Arabia agrees to allow political organizations. Perhaps we should shut down The New York Times until Saudi Arabia agrees to respect freedom of speech.

Gingrich’s truly bizarre argument basically admits that opposition to the proposed Islamic community center and mosque is rooted in religious intolerance. In fact, the whole point of the piece is to justify that admitted intolerance on the ground that Saudi Arabia is even more intolerant.

Reading Gingrich’s strange statement took me back to a chilling passage in a brilliant book by the Dartmouth historian Susannah Heschel called The Aryan Jesus. In this study of the intellectual lengths Christian theologians went to demonize the Jews during the 1930s in Nazi Germany, she makes a chilling observation about how racism works.  “By defining the target as immoral,” she writes, “the perpetrators permit themselves to violate their own moral norms.”

Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Gingrich is a Nazi, or a racist. I don't believe he is either. What I am saying is that he is following this same script. By defining his target—in this case “the Islamists and their apologists”—as immoral he and his followers permit themselves to violate America’s longstanding moral norms.

There are many words for such an argument, but conservative is not one of them. True conservatives seek to safeguard a society's core values, not to dismiss them in the name of the demon du jour. And one of America's core values, inscribed into the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is freedom of religion.

But we are at war, right? And don't desperate times call for desperate measures? According to Gingrich, “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” And I will grant him that. There are Muslim extremists who hate America and want to destroy us.

But while terrorists may take down our buildings and murder our citizens, only we American citizens can bury our core values. And that is what Palin, Gingrich, and other so-called conservatives are all too willing to do.

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

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Islam • Politics

soundoff (600 Responses)
  1. brad

    Prothero quotes Palin "Don’t build the mosque, she wrote, out of respect for the dead and out of sensitivity to those who lost loved ones on 9/11."

    Prothero, what's wrongheaded about Palin's compassionate view? Civil Libertines are so submerged in the cult of broadmindedness that their heads are flat. How much effort is the Muslim world exerting in trying to control their own terrorists. I say build the mosque as near as possible to the WTC. Emblazened across the entrance, in Arabic, "Holy Wars have Holy Targets" to remind them not to provoke another crusade.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
    • MoodyMoody

      Prothero likes her argument better than Gingrich's. He believes she's wrong but admits some validity to her reasoning. Her argument is emotional and outside of logic; Gingrich's argument is plain illogical.

      July 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  2. Dee

    BillyJack- Love your post the best. As a native NYer who lost many old coworkers that day, I respect the desire to build a Mosque, but not there. It is a blatant smile while the knife goes in the back.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
    • TRUTH

      What about the Muslims who died on that day ?

      July 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  3. troothsayer

    The problem with a lot of the comments here is that no one is denying that freedom to practice religion is a right. The true argument is about why it has to be in a place where so many were killed in the name of Allah. It is not only an insult to those who perished but to those who live as well.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  4. G

    I'm very much against a mosque at Ground Zero – however, its certainly NY’s business and outsiders shouldn’t be telling them what to do in your own city – and also we must diligently endeavor to maintain our principles of freedom, openness and tolerance – its freedom that makes us the greatest and most prosperous country in the history of the world – however, I think this is (or rather should be) a war of values: freedom vs religious tyranny – the ideal society in the muslim world would follow islamic law and make no separation between religion and state – how would you like to be a woman living in an islamic society? – they’re anti-freedom and for that I have no respect for islam

    We on the other hand have to pay the cost of freedom which means we have to tolerate things we don’t like sometimes – like flag burning, protests by illegal aliens on our own soil and such – unlike islamic societies we have freedom of religion and accordingly muslims are free to build mosques all over our country, perhaps sadly even at Ground Zero

    Ben Franklin said: “those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither” which I wholeheartedly agree – but we also need to maintain some self-respect – in the words of the Bard: “self love is not so vile a sin as self loathing”

    July 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • PapaKat

      Franklin's quote no longer applies in our modern society. He said that in an era before cyber attacks, nuclear weapons posessed by Islamofascists and transnational organizations with the extermination of an entire people as part of their agenda. If Franklin were alive today he'd fully support defending ourselves against terrorists with all deliberate attention, particularly in the US.

      July 23, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  5. cmkc

    To the author – Heschel is not the first to have the "revelation" about demonizing the enemy as immoral - Read "The Lucifer Effect" about the Stanford prison experiment by Philip G. Zimbardo published in 2007.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  6. Guyintpabay

    sagebrush, all religions are cults. the only way they can get new members is to indoctrinate their children from birth, which to me is simply child abuse. Christians dump water on their screaming babies heads, jews barbarically cut off the foreskin of their sons penises, muslims coerce their women to walk around like Cousin It in those burqas...YIKES! How can sane people be so deluded? It is truly frightening how these folks can argue and pontificate over such imaginary BS!

    July 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  7. JohnM

    nutty newt and silly sarah, now there's a pair, but of what is anybody's guess.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  8. Dave W.

    Gingrich's idea is not bizarre; however, it can be reworked. Before a mosque is built, those constructing it should be required to at least affirm they are in favor of freedom of religion. Anyone who says they don't think other religions have a right to build a house of worship shouldn't be allowed to build a house of hate.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Buster Bloodvessel

      Great, and anyone building a new Christian church must sign an affidavit agreeing that Christianity is only one of many unproved religions, and that they have no objection to a mosque, synagogue, or Church of Elvis being built next door. This could stop religion cold!

      July 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  9. Lee

    I'm equally, if not more offended by the crosses placed at the sight of the OKC bombing. They should ban all christian churches in america! While I know this is not possible, imagine how much better this world would be if religion was not part of the equation? No more right wing fanatics killing doctors, no more islamic jihad, no more Iaraeli/Palestinian conflict, and for the most part, no more wars. Wake up my friends!

    July 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  10. Guidance

    If you do not know abou Islam, then you should not post any negative and ignorant comments about Islam. Quran consist of Torah, Bible, Gospel. If any Muslim reject any of this book then he is out of Islam. Sameway as Jesus, if someone does not belive in him as a messenger. Quran forbids any innocent person be killed wheather Muslim or nonmuslim. islam wants you be sucessful in this temporary life and etenal life. Those, who kill in name of Islam, are not amongst us and they will surely stand up in court of Allah on the Day of Judgemnt and will be punished according to their sins.Islam is the only true guidance , salvation and solution to all the problems. Life of this world is just passing enjoyment and to Him is your final return. May Allah guide you all on the right path of Islam and make you inheritors of Paradise.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
    • JoeB

      Guidance, you try to start out by saying Islam is part of the major religions blah, blah, blah, but then you turn around and show your true colors by saying, "Islam is the only true guidance." Guidance, you are part of the problem with Islam. You think that we should all believe as you think we should. I guess you must feel comfortable posting here because you have so Americans here who are willing to bow down and be led as sheep to their own sacrificial alter. Just remember, there are other Americans who will take a stand. They are the people who hold the true beliefs about America, They will even defend the weak amoung us who stand on empty principles.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  11. Buster Bloodvessel

    Gingrich is the maniac who got us into the mess we are in today with his clever idea of demonizing his political opponents and declaring that non-adherence to his philosophy was actually immoral and evil(the exact stance taken by al-Qaeda). It's worked so well that his own party is fading and splintering while the Democrats are stronger than ever. Does anyone still think he's on America's side?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  12. gg

    Oh the sorrow. I think you guys need to throw religion out of your lives. I'm sure you're minds are so diluted by it that you have failed to realize that the current war we are involved in, is a war that was predicted thousands of years ago. I'm sure you folks are blind to the fact that the current war is now a religious war based on power hungry priest that have duped you guys for millenniums. Those that practice the big 3 religions also failed to realize that they are all based off a falsified teaching that was passed down to humans from higher beings but turned into religions from people of power. honestly, you guys crack me up, bickering about which god is correct and which faith is the best when it originated from the same source. If you can understand that fact you'd realize that what you preach is hypocrisy.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  13. SoulCatcher

    Go right ahead and build. I believe in freedom of religion. Also I believe in ghosts. I'm sure most of the ghosts in the area won't like the new occupants.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  14. gerry

    so people say they dont want a mosque near ground zero.. and everyone should understand because it isnt that they are trying to take away americans rights to freedom of religion. They are just asking them to be sensitive.. and then i read a story about a group of white christians who are trying to stop the building of a mosque in tenesse. Is that also way to close to ground zero? Does this still count as them being insensitive? The people of tenessee say its because islam is trying to get its filthy paws on their way of life and they are standing up agianst it.
    To many idiots in this country who cry whenever someone touches their ability to carry an assault rifle or hunt a bear, and then jump to the chance to take rights away from anyone who isnt white. (as seen with arizonas plans to try to bypass the 14th amendment, and now the problems with mosque)

    July 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  15. BossMan114

    I would go further and say we level every mosque in America. They are potential breeding ground for terrorism. This is a Christian nation. Put up a church instead.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
    • Buster Bloodvessel

      Churches are breeding grounds for extremism. Let's level them all too. If people want to worship they can do it in their homes.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • IzDaMan

      Mosques are not only a place of worship, they are a seat of government for Islam.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bubba

      This ain't a Christian nation. We were the first country to not have an official state religion. The Church of England went to war with us twice trying to take us over, remember? Did you sleep through your history AND social studies classes?

      July 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  16. Amy J

    "3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

    Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom."

    - Pope Paul VI

    July 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  17. ALBERT

    i believe that where a political tragedy occurred religious tolerance should reign supreme, however, with respect, i believe that we should not besmirche the memory of our fallen comrades by following through on such a request, as at the moment it is politically not feasible, however, i condemn racism and religious bias as being practiced in France and Arizona, so I will leave this up to God. By the way, I agree with Mr. Gingrich. We are a more tolerant society in the west, but we were attacked by saudi nationals and with Islam on their lips, hence our opposition at this time. Much respect to Islam-Christianity-Judaism and Secularism, One Humanity One God

    July 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  18. missedpoints

    FIrst off, this is not a N.Y. only issue. those on here making out to be so are not very observant. The terrorist that bombed the trade centers also took out the pentagon and attempted much more than that. It was an attack on America, its people and alll that it represents. Second the reference to abortion clinics is not relavant nor is the federal building McVeigh bombing. those are weak ploys at best. The issue is that throughtout the world islam /muslim beliefs have been showing a pattern of intolerance to all but their own views. Is this country really thinking it can tolerate a religion that proscribes a way to live your life specifically and in fact dictates that shariaw law is supreme ...thsu there is no separation of church and state in this religion. So if you think Christianity is a pain to liberty and freedom just wait till islam has a more powerful sway to here. I haev seen no example in the world that says they will be more tolerant when they have more power. Everyone is tolerant when they have little power to exert themselves.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
  19. High Way

    I have one comment make, if you Stephen Prothero have read certain passages of the Koran, you will probably have a better understanding of the motivation of building a mosque near ground zero. Forget about some politicians that make absurd comments, its all used for a media show and distracts from the real motivation to build a mosque near ground zero. What is happening now is more pernicious than you think. IMO.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  20. TOM

    Mr. Prothero: With your rebukes of ground zero mosque critics, you can slice, dice, or inflame still-raw sentiments of 9/11 victims all day long. But until you add in your column the words of zealots taken straight from the zealots' foundational text – those used in support of the crashing of jets carrying innocent passengers – and successfully explain those words away, you've provided no substance to any arguement that supports the foundation of any related building; nor have you managed to prop up any so-called religious right to occupy ground still soaked with the blood of 9/11 victims.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
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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.