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. some1

    Palin and Gingrich should simply stay out of this debate. Everytime they open their mouths, they fill the void with their feet. As for building a religious center (or whatever you want to call it) at ground zero...I say, don't let any religon build anything at or near ground zero. Oddly enough though, not all of people who lost their lives on that terrible day were Christians. Some were Jews, Buddhists, and YES, even Muslims. Oh, by-the-way, I hear the Westboro Baptist Church wants to open an office next door to the sight (DOH...not really).

    July 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  2. David Howard Elton (Spokane, WA)

    This subject came up in a debate last night for Spokane County Commissioner. While Palin makes a better argument, Gingrich touches on bigger issues of respect and equal tolerance of belief systems. It is wrong to call Newt Gingrich "bizarre". That word has a certain connotation that hints at mental frialty and gently tries to convince the reader that Gingrich might be "off his rocker". The real issue we have in the world is simply long term survival. Remeber the "STING" song from 1985 ? "I hope the Russians love their children too". As a world, we must respect eachothers belief systems. Unless they harm or kill.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  3. S.

    All Religions are a waste of time, people need to pull their heads out of their behinds and realize it is all man made bull.
    Religion, can't start a war without it!!!!

    Your "God" really asked for you to built huge buildings of worship and spend millions on bullcrap, I would say it is better to spend that money on people with hunger, who have nothing, the sick....Religion is the downfall of mankind.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  4. Jason

    This guy is not a moron, he is a liar. He intentionally misrepresents Newt's reasoning for the purpose of writing an article that forwards his point of view. Like it or not (and he clearly doesn't), this is a country founded by Christians. Christian morals are written into our laws and have been woven into the fabric of America. The founding fathers were men of profound Christian stature. It was clearly not their intention to keep the Christian church out of government, but to keep the government out of the church. If you think otherwise, you should do some studying on the great men who founded the land that we live in. Newt is 100% correct that we are not only in a war against terrorism, but “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” WAKE UP AMERICA you are asleep and we are being conquered from the inside.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
    • Amy J

      Christians and agnostics alike, who were escaping religious persecution. "Religious liberty" is definitely not a fundamental aspect of Christianity.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • Ellid

      Totally and utterly wrong. America was NOT founded as a Christian country, as anyone who bothers to read a decent history book can tell you. It was founded as a secular democracy.

      As for Newt Gingrich, he is a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud who cloaks himself in religion despite a history of serial adultery. For him to opine on anything that even approaches religion is revolting.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  5. aatami

    Are the republicans capable of an opinion beyond the intellectual level of a third grade child? Obviously not.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  6. ernest

    While Stephen Prothero seems like an intelligent person, he is letting his opinionated ways warp undeniable realities. If one doesn't grasp the profound reasons why a mosque should not be erected at ground zero, they need to study up on history, religious and otherwise, shake off their ignorance and misguided way of thinking.. "And one of America's core values, inscribed into the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is freedom of religion", Mr. Prothero states. I'd like to hear his definition of "freedom".Perhaps Mr. Prothero would have no qualms with muslims introducing sharia law within their U.S. neighborhoods...in the name of religious "freedom", of course.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  7. somename

    Stop them! We do not need another "pilot's" center.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  8. Wasilla Billy

    Nothing gets the right wing whack jobs more energized than a religion different than their own, or a president with a different skin color.

    I'm glad Newt looks to Saudi Arabia for values about freedom. That explains what he did to his first wife.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  9. Texas Firefighter

    I would rather see a non-denominational community center built to honor the 343 NY firefighters and the 200+ police officers that lost their lives that saved tens of thousands. The beef is not the mosque, but who is funding it and the shariah views of the iman building it and his funding sources. I have no problem with peace loving muslims, but I do have a problem with a culture that performs female genital mutilation, not allowing girls or women to get an education, not allowing women to drive a car or to be seen in public without a male family member, requires women to be covered from head to toe, etc. Many muslim women compain about the double standards but are not in any position to question or change this. There is a culture clash going on between moderate and strictly religious muslim faithful, with the moderates are fearful of death and violence. Is this really the Religion of Peace or the Religion of Pieces?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  10. Morloc

    Each year it's beaten into my head (at work) that I must respect those around me. I'm told that offending someone might result in being disciplined, fired, or worse. I'm told that it's my responsibility to be aware of anything which might be offensive, and to understand that much like the law, ignorance won't be considered an excuse. To assist my tiny brain with the task of determining what is considered "offensive" I'm given a simple guideline: "Anything which makes another person uncomfortable".

    I continue to watch these videos (there'll be a quiz) and am given examples of people losing their jobs because of some off the cuff joke, or because their eyes were in the wrong place. Perhaps their expression wasn't happy enough. At the end of the video, and throughout the quiz, it's repeatedly emphasized that ANYTHING that makes someone feel uncomfortable, and has been brought to my attention by the individual (but not limited to only things brought to my attention) is something I need to stop doing.

    This is insane!...but I'm forced every year to deal with it. Now, I know that NYC isn't the same as a workplace. I'll say it again, I ~know~ that it's not the same as a workplace, but explain to me, philosophically, not legally, why people shouldn't act with the same consideration for another which I do (like it or not) each day?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  11. Dhulfiqar

    Since the community center is led by a Sufi imam, the Wahaabis (i.e. Al-Qaida, Taliban) would consider this community center heresy. In places where like Pakistan, Taliban are known to bomb Sufi Mosques. Using logic now, it seems the people opposing the community center are aligning themselves with Al-Qaida and the Taliban. How ironic.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  12. Bart Fargo

    "We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men."
    -Edward R. Murrow

    July 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  13. Sharon

    I don't live in New York, have never visited New York so what I think really doesn't matter. That said, I think if they follow the zoning requirements there is really no reason to deny their building permit. In fact, I seem to remember a federal law (?) that basically says you cannot deny a permit for a religious building unless it is due to some zoning or other regulation. It is discrimination to do so & infringes on religious freedom. I find it amusing that those who yell all the time about keeping religious freedom & allowing prayer in schools are the same ones looking to deny religious freedom. Oh yeah, that's because the only religious freedom that counts is for them is Christianity.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • missedpoints

      due to Zoning or regs you say...I have personally seen a church that was christian be told you have to move due to "new" zoning. People control the zoning and when they want you to be elsewhere that's what you'll be so lets not make this out to be nasty christians just want what they want.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
    • Larrywp

      I'm hoping, Sharon, that you're just being foolish in your view of this matter. It is either that, or you are a muslim, or you are demented. Because no right thinking American, who loves this country, can hope for the building of this mosque. Now, you may not love this country, which would explain your position. But I would submit to you that Islam is not just a religion. Islam is a whole host of social, criminal and religious edicts which incorporate to design an entire culture of savage discrimination against other religions, cultures and civilizations and women. I don't demand that you believe me; read about it yourself. Educate yourself, Sharon. There is probably a bright, inquisitive mind in there somewhere and I encourage you to use it.

      July 24, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  14. Steve

    I am continually ashamed of my country's ignorance and xenophobia.

    If we're getting ready to judge all Muslims for September 11th, then let's judge all Christians for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. The truth is that the majority of Muslims have no desire to see the rest of the world become Islamic. The Muslims hoping to build a mosque are also building a community center. They have said themselves that the September 11th attacks were a tragedy and should never have happened. Muslims fight alongside Christians, atheists, Jews, and everything else in our armed forces. Innocent Muslims died in the September 11th attacks.

    Every Muslim I have ever met accepts others despite differences in religion, philosophy, and ideology. None of them believe in beating women, implementing Sharia law, or using terrorism as a means to any end. I'd say they're even more tolerant than your average American.

    Pull your heads out of your hind parts, America, and stop living in your own prejudices and fears. You're acting like a bunch of ignorant, paranoid rednecks.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • missedpoints

      "no desire to see the rest of the world become islamic" I think you are the one with your head in the whatever you said. Then they are not muslim or you have been looking with your eyes closed. Just as Christians want others to be saved muslims want conversions likewise.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • Mike

      When are you and others going to understand that we ARE a nation of paranoid Rednecks! We always have been. Right after we won the American Revolution what did we do? The rednecks started another revolution to overthrow the new central government. Why? Because they didn't want taxes on whiskey! Our nation is expendable to these people and so is it's system of laws. Petty BS and small minds will destroy this nation and all the work our forefathers put into it. Like Franklin said, "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."

      July 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  15. Josh

    Look: Islam is a peaceful faith with violent segments just as many other faiths. I say let the Mosque be built. Regardless of its funding sources or ideological symbolism, it will one day represent the peace within Islam & those who now look down upon the project will be viewed as short-sided ideologues just as those who attacked us in the first place. The oppressed become the oppressors.

    USMC 2001-2006, Agnostic

    July 23, 2010 at 3:28 pm |

    I knew one person who was killed on 9/11. And as much as I hate the idea of a mosque so close to Ground Zero, I have come to grips with the mosque being built there. Why? We're Americans and our country was built on religious freedom. Not every Muslim wants to kill Americans. If there is an interfaith alliance (Catholics, Christians and Jews) that can be part of the center, than I think we should do it.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  17. John

    Oh my god not this idiot again.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  18. It's me

    Who first proposed that a mosque be built there? Where is their sense of multiculturalism – this is more like in-your-face ethnocentrism. I find the project appalling.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  19. CdnJim

    If there are any Christians or Jews on here, consider Isaiah 4:2
    "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore"
    Rather than be upset about a mosque being built here, why not take your own scriptures to heart, Sarah and Newt, this goes for you to.
    What a message New York could send to the world, by not only approving this mosque – but connecting it to a Synagogue and a Church. Let the WTC become a beacon of hope and a call to peace rather than a reminder of hate and anger.
    Don't let the trauma of 9/11 define who you are, rather why don't you decise what 9/11 will speak to the future?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • Steve

      Thank you. Your comment is one of the few ones worth reading on this page.

      July 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
    • Dave

      Its much easier to hate others than it is to follow a sensible moral compass. If more so called "religious" people thought the way you did, the world would be a better place. Instead we have people who use faith as a way to condone violence and sustain hatred. America has as much to blame in the violence the modern world has suffered as any other nation or faith has.

      July 23, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  20. EdMan

    Mr. Prothero,

    I understand where Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are coming from and I believe they are correct to an extent. But when you stated the following:

    "Really? Since when has Saudi Arabia been the model for American civil liberties?"

    That changed my views considerably. I hate to make this political, but sometimes I have to wonder if the Gingrichs and Palins of the country actually envy the oppressive regimes of countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Sometimes I honestly believe they look at the governments of such countries and wish they could oppress anyone they do not approve of and have contempt for. It is the only logical explanation for why they make such arguments despite claiming to be freedom-loving people who only want to protect the American way of life.

    This can also be attributed to the broader consciousness in America today. So many people accuse our government (a government I personally do not approve of) of being communist, fascist, Nazi, socialist, what have you. But as you, Mr. Prothero, have shown, history tells us that fascist movements, such as the Nazi regime, emerged not from any corrupt and incompetent government, but rather from folks who accused that government of being communist, fascist, socialist and dictatorial. By demonizing and hating others, they revealed who the true fascists and oppressors were – themselves. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!

    Great point, but more importantly, great post. Keep up the good work, sir!

    July 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Thanks, EdMan

      July 23, 2010 at 3:28 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.