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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. B

    I can totally understand the opposition to the GZ mosque. I understand that we want to send a positive message to the Muslim community, but I honestly think that it's too soon to be building something of that magnitude near a site that is still fresh in the memory of the civilians of this country and viewed as hallowed ground by many. As much as we like to think that we can move past this easily, the truth is we still have a long way to go. Especially considering the financier of this proposed mosque can't even bring himself to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  2. Mark C

    It's really fascinating to watch supposedly grown people argue over whose invisible man in the sky really controls the universe.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  3. GwenC

    I'm pretty sure victims of the Crusades in the middle-ages felt their attackers were terrorists out to destroy their civilization and core values. Now what religion were those Crusaders?

    Wake up people, if we let the terrorists (of any religion) cause us to modify our values and become intolerant of other religions, they have won. Show the world how powerful tolerance can be.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  4. George

    Some folks ignorance about religion is staggering. Those who profess to know what Islam is are often so misguided as to be totally in the dark. I am not Muslim, by the way. Catholic and at times Episcopalian. But I no longer practice religion because it is, in my view, too often little more than brainwashing and belief in an invisible friend. I do make it my business to understand,however, and have read extensively about Islam. But back to Islam. By the way. There is no "our God and their God". it is the same God. Virtually every relevant figure in the Christian bibles is featured in the Koran, right down to Moses, Mary, Jesus and the Last Supper, the food for which the Koran says was sent down from heaven by God. The Koran is a rewriting of our own religious books with changes to reflect the method of worship and institute laws. Try reading the Old Testament of your own religion someday. It is far more violent than anything in the Koran, included admonishing true believers to, wherever they find a city of non believers, to kill all the men, women and children, all the animals and burn the fields. The Koran, borrowing much of that, actually toned it down. No killing of women, animals etc. The vast majority of Muslims place no stock in the violence of the extremists. They abhor what they do in the name of religion because they know that it is not in keeping with the true faith. But some brain dead folks, who subscribe to the 'tar them all with the same brush' school of thought. (I use the term thought loosely, because if they thought at all they would have a different view) There are violent radicals in every religion. Deal with it. It does not make ll people of that religion evil. Taking such idiotic positions as want to ban a Mosque and other actions against Muslims serves only to prove intolerance on our part and increase hatred. You just hand the extremists another weapon to use against us.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  5. AesopsRetreat Dot

    Stephen Prothero knows absolutely nothing (nada, zilch, zero) about how muslims choose "Mega-Mosque" locations.

    Nor does he seem to comtemplate how the Japanese would have felt had America built a Christian Church at ground zero of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sometimes people just forget how think. Either that or they give their anti Christian attitude and bigotry more neuron receptors than they should.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
    • MoodyMoody

      So what? Prothero knows what Americans purport to believe in.

      The problem is that this mosque is so symbolic. Perhaps for some Muslims, it is a symbol of triumph. For many Americans, it is a symbol of hatred from Islam. I believe that Prothero would argue that for Americans, this mosque should be a symbol of our Bill of Rights, which protects freedom of religion, even a minority religion like Islam. (Yes, it's the #2 religion in the world, but a minor religion in the USA.)

      July 23, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  6. baalzevuv

    .clap clap. Way to go, apologists. Your embrace of peace and tolerance rattles the sensibilities of realists. By allowing a mosque, a place of worship for a group of people that 10 years ago clapped and cheered the violent end of thousands Americans, to be built at the very site of that catastrophe only validates their religious tenets of subjugation and conversion of the non-Muslim. What a fantastic reward for such a heinous act against humanity. Have you all forgotten this occurred because their religion mandates subjugation of the infidel?

    Any religion that takes itself seriously ought to embrace things like human equality, science, and heck, the 21st century. Until the Middle East and their vicious ideology conform to the modern era, we ought to be closing the shutters to this nonsense.
    Let us open our arms to embrace those that wish to seize our freedoms and liberties. Let us show them how ridiculously tolerant we are by allowing their mind virus to propagate on our soil. At least Christianity, with all of its evils, can allow itself to be misinterpreted for good. At least Christians are afforded the convenience of cherry picking the Bible verses they want to apply in their lives. The same cannot be said for Islam and the in infallibility of the Quran.

    Why can’t more cults be like Heaven’s Gate?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  7. Clarice

    Due to all the destruction threats in the comments on the last article, I think they should build that mosque on the very top of the Freedom Tower. We'll see which one of you tries to destroy it then, because if you do, you are nothing but a terrorist yourself and no better than the murderers on 9/11.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  8. Andrew Messenger

    I think Rick Lazio has an interesting spin on it, published right here on CNN:

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/07/22/lazio.muslim.center/index.html?iref=allsearch

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  9. missedpoints

    Too many of you are like farmers claiming that kudzoo is just as good a crop as corn. STop trying to be pc. Everyone has a right to speak as the bombing of the trade centers was not an attack on N.Y. but on America and what it stands for. THe point is more of...does a religion with a tenant that shariah law is supreme and should be used rather than civil laws tolerant enough to be acceptable to a republican form of government such as ours? Remembering that all entities are relatively tolerant when they have no power but that is not the case once they do. Terorrism is the tool used when an intolerant entity has little power.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  10. Scrape

    How many Muslim Americans were in those office buildings on 9/11? I don't see the issue with a mosque near ground zero.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  11. Al

    As liberal to moderate democrat my entire life and a former NY city resident I have to disagree. I do believe having a Muslim center with a prayer facility (a Mosque) so near to ground zero is a very bad idea and completely insensitive. Why? What is the reasoning behind such a move? We all understand that it was Muslim Religious extremists who orchestrated 9-11 so why create an image that reflects those people (even if the reflection is inaccurate since not all Muslim are extremist and not all Muslim participated in the attack). How would people in Hawaii in 1945 feel about the Japanese opening a Japanese Cultural Center a few blocks away from Pearl Harbor? I think most people would understand that it would be in poor taste so soon after such an attack! Sorry, I am a big supporter of our constitutional rights especially the freedom of religion (and from religion), but this idea is just wrong! Maybe 15 years from now, but not right now!

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Double RrL

    is it o.k. for me to post in this comment section if I forgot my tin foil hat?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  13. citizenUSA

    I think this BHL is more scary than Gigrich. Don't mix politics with religion. We don't care if Saudi Arabia does not follow our political system. That's a lame comparison to the Mosque issue. And why would you consider Christianity the religion of choice? All we are saaaaaa-y-ing, is we don't want your Mosque.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  14. Charles

    I have no problem with a mosque at the ground zero site. I do have problem with Feisal Abdul Rauf being the imam of that mosque. He is an extremist who tries to disguise himself as a moderate. There are plenty of truly moderate imams in NYC...why can't they get one of those to head up this project?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  15. baalzevuv

    .clap clap. Way to go, apologists. Your embrace of peace and tolerance rattles the sensibilities of realists. By allowing a mosque, a place of worship for a group of people that 10 years ago clapped and cheered the violent end of thousands Americans, to be built at the very site of that catastrophe only validates their religious tenets of subjugation and conversion of the non-Muslim. What a fantastic reward for such a heinous act against humanity. Have you all forgotten this occurred because their religion mandates subjugation of the infidel?
    Any religion that takes itself seriously ought to embrace things like human equality, science, and heck, the 21st century. Until the Middle East and their vicious ideology conform to the modern era, we ought to be closing the shutters to this nonsense.
    Let us open our arms to embrace those that wish to seize our freedoms and liberties. Let us show them how ridiculously tolerant we are by allowing their mind virus to propagate on our soil. At least Christianity, with all of its evils, can allow itself to be misinterpreted for good. At least Christians are afforded the convenience of cherry picking the Bible verses they want to apply in their lives. The same cannot be said for Islam and the in infallibility of the Quran.
    Why can’t more cults be like Heaven’s Gate?

    July 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
    • Alex

      No I embrace the constitution which states religious freedom. I don't like the mosque there either but it's their right to do it. We just give them more power though by all crying about it as if a building next to the WTC site is going to be a traing ground for terrorist anymore than it would be in another part of manhattan. Everytime we react so sensitively to a move like this we just give them more power, so applaud yourself. clap clap clap

      July 23, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  16. Big Kitchen

    Blind, ignorant, pitiful, poor and naked and I don't mean Palin or Gingrich. Just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Why don't we all just gather the facts like an attorney, that will help us win our case. Truth has become irrelevant in the media. Intellectual honesty is out of the window by the left and even most of the right, certainly the middle. No one seems to have enough integrity to properly examine all of the evidence on an issue and then rightly divide it. Stupidity and having been brainwashed by socialist American universities play a part, but it really is a matter of heart. Having a love for THE truth has become a very rare thing, especially with the media, politicians and commentators.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  17. morleyl

    While I think Christianity is the main religion here in principle, I really don't think we follow true Christianity at all. In fact Christianity should have nothing do with politics. The issue with Islam and the West around political power and not to do with religious observance. Since the Romans took over Christianity from the founding fathers it has become mostly a political club and so also is Islam.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  18. Mike

    What is taking America so long to become the 3rd World that it is striving so hard to become? Religious intolerance, lower wages, a shrinking middle class, war lords waiting to overthrow the government, rigged elections, politicians purchased by special interests, an ignorant and isolated population, media taken over by partisans, unsafe food, lack of medical care and environmental degradation. All we are missing is a military coup and we will resemble a true Banana Republic.
    What we need in this country is a little more intollerance and a lot more guns.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  19. Todd

    If the United States wanted to build a Monument and Museum to those dedicated poeple who made the Manhattan Project possible (atomic bomb for the history deprived), would it be appropriate to place that museum in Hiroshima? How about Nagasaki? If an organization used Japanese laws against discrimination to allow them to build such a facility, what would you think of the organization? At a minimum, I would say they are insensitive. At worst, they are hate mongers.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  20. Steve Consilvio

    The argument by conservatives is yet another version of fear as public policy. In this case, however, it is crossing a new line, and saying that anything Muslim is guilty by association with 9/11.

    These people are easily crossed and slow to heal. We need to pray for them. God would not be happy with how easily they are seduced by the Devil.

    http://www.behappyandfree.com

    July 23, 2010 at 3:40 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.