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. stephen

    Islam is not a religion. People call it that, because that gives it a pass to endulge in barbarism no other motivation could get away with.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • david stone

      Quite right! It was created as a way to oppress women, and kill those who don't share your morals or beliefs....a way for a core group of insecure males to hold on to power with a death grip, by all means necessary.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  2. In America

    The truly funny thing to me is that Religion was created to control the masses.. 'Faith' is pushed as the ONLY means of 'knowing' a god exists. Hence why they teach and preach 'faith'. Some day, people will wake up and realize that there was no 'Arc full of animals' or that bush that was actually on fire because there were wildfires that day or some kid learned how to rub two sticks together.

    Faith and religion are for the weak minded and the hopeless. The world would be a lot safer when religion is taken out of the equation.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • Brian

      As an atheist, I agree. But as an American we cannot deny this group, many of whom have been in the Lower Manhattan for years, the right to religious assembly. All religion is stupid and can be dangerous, but we cannot begin to paint a whole religion as evil based on the actions of a few. If that were the case I would not tolerate any Christian, for I find many of their leaders vapid. I know that the whole flock is not.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bart

      Brian, the whole religion is not being painted as evil for the action of the few. It's for the actions of the majority – the imams that teach jihad, their very holy book that tells them to kill non-believers, their way of life – stoning people to death for extra marital sex, enslaving women, uncounted murders and tortures in the name of their religion. The actions of the few you refer to – 9/11 – is just the biggest example of Islam's evil, but if you add up all the "small" crimes made in the name of Islam, like killing just single people, beheading Jews with kitchen knives on camera, etc, etc you'll get a picture of the worst atrocity in the history of mankind, dwarfing even what the Nazis did.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  3. ok1

    A lot of people say "Why didn't or don't Muslim protest the violence of 9-11 or the extremist? ect, ect , ect. But they do! It is not news worthy, but on small news channels online or small papers they are reported, but not in the main stream. Most people get their views on Islam from the main stream media outlets. It is called propaganda. There are a lot of Muslims in America that love American and support it, but still identify themselves as Muslims. And for some peoples information there were Muslims in the two towers that died on 9-11 or were missing. I remember only one main stream news channel mentioned it, and then they never did it again. There are a confirmed 28 Muslims (that either worked in one of the towers, or was in one of the other attacks, (not the hijackers)), but the number could be as high as 60-80. Muslims have a stake when it comes to 9-11 and they morned too. It is said that people believe what they are told then to go and find out the truth. It is important that we understand each other weather we believe in a God or not, but we all live here in America and we should learn to live by its ideals.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  4. Brent Walker

    Islam did not attack America. Radical Islamic fundamentalists attacked America. Individuals.

    The problem is not religion...it's religious fundamentalism. Whether it's Islamic, Christian or Jewish, fundamentalism is a perversion of religion, born of fear and ignorance, and resulting in irrational judgment and violence.

    Don't blame Islam...blame fundamentalism. Then endeavor to remove the plank from your own fundamentalist eye before complaining about someone else.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • david stone

      I disagree. Islam is unique among religions. In every other religion when a small percentage of whackos act up, they are shouted down by the majority. Not so in islam where the majority stands silent, actually providing tacit support to the barbaric insanity committed by others. They either fear them too much to make a stand, or actually support them deep down. No matter which reason it happens for, it happens, and makes islam a unique evil.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  5. david stone

    islam runs counter to everything we hold dear in this country....including freedom of religion, tolerance of gays, womens rights, on and on....it is a violent, opressive death cult....I wish we could make a constitutional ammendment to exclude it from being protected by the constitution..

    July 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  6. Bart

    I am against building a mosque near ground zero... or anywhere else for that matter. Religions are like viruses. The latest one – Islam – is the most virulent of all, infecting people at an alarming rate. And now we're seeing a new strain of it, extremist Islam, that is so dangerous it drives people to commit mass murder.
    We're not building places of worship of HIV, or Ebola, or Smallpox, or Cholera... just because the religious viruses are mental rather than physical doesn't mean they're not as dangerous. Tolerance has its place, but tolerating evil is just wrong.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  7. Andy Duncan

    It truly amazes me at the different aurguments that I see when it comes to the muslim faith. Get a clue people. A large religious group has declared war on America and our way of life. The actions of the extremist elements of this group are not condemed by the vast majority of its members, but rather condoned and excused. The fact that the vast majority of this group also lives in what can only be described as stone aged conditions, convincing them via their religious leadership that America is at the root of all of their problems is fairly easy. The sad fact is that they are not lacking intelligence, they are as smart as anyone that you know. And just as you will see something you want and acheive it, they will do the same thing. their goal is the destruction of America. Their religion does not constrain them from killing anyone, including themselves and their fellows, to achive this goal. The biggest question in my mind is why they would choose to build a $100 million project here, when that money would be far better spent in the middle east, educating and providing services closer to where the services are truly needed by the poor and suffering.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  8. Yair

    Let's hope the American people wake up like they did in 1941 and save the world again from the creeping threat of Islam-driven terrorism and suppression.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
  9. Alex

    America is a melting pot where we value freedom and sometimes freedom is uncomfortable. This mosque might be in the wrong place to many people but to not allow them to build it is religious bigotry. It would be if we didn't allow Catholics to build a church or Buddhist to build a temple, for us to say that every Muslim is a terrorist and we don't want them worshiping in a particular spot is flat out religious intolerence. I don't love the idea of this being next to the WWTC site either but I hate more to live in a country that does not tollerate religious freedom.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  10. g

    it is a free country so if they own that land they probably can build a mosque there....but it is in poor taste. The mosque will only serve to remind us of a group of violent extremists who used the muslim religion to justify killing innocent people. I'd kindly ask that mosque not to open or if they don't understand our sensitivity, maybe we can open a strip club next door to the mosque... lol.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
  11. Brian

    Palin uses New York when it fits her agenda. When she is in the heartland talking to "real Americans" she bashes those who live in big cities. New Yorkers are "real Americans", just like in North Dakota. And New York is home to one of the most diverse populations on the planet. Just walk through Queens. This is America. And guess what there are mosques and community centers all over the city, and there have been for decades. This Islamic Community Center is open to all faiths and is being started by a man who has called Lower Manhattan home for years. There is already a mosque 4 blocks from the World Trade center....has been for 30 years.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  12. Jason

    Some people are biggots and they fail to realize this. This is a very well written article. I bet you if a christian terrorist group was responsible for 911 instead of muslims we still wouln't have any qualms about them building a church near ground zero.

    Why do you ask? If a radical christian group was reponsible we would just dismiss the religious part and thats simply because the majority of us are christian and white. We would simply say that they are misguided and the christian religion isn't bad because the actions of a few people.

    Because we know better... right? But for some reason when their skin and religion is too different from ours we don't give them the same benifit of the doubt.

    Yes Mr. Gringich is right that other countries don't allow for equal rights. But this is the United States and we have evolved sensibilities and laws.... right? We raise the bar for others to follow. Relations with other cultures will not improve if we sink to other countries levels. I don't think Gingrich really thought his statement through.

    Many Muslims are not bad people and work hard in this country and strive for many ideals and goals in life that you and I strive for. Many people were lost in 911 of all nationalities and religions. Unfortunatly the media has us brainwashed to hate and fear Islam.

    In most movies muslims are the villians. In many TV shows they are in our suburbic communities planning on nuking and gassing us all. This only adds on to the things we hear in our local medias. And wether intentional or not most news isnt known for its lighter side so we always get bad news when dealing with our relations over seas

    So lets act how Americans are susposed to act and lets stop being prejudice biggots and honor our nations ideals

    July 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
  13. lance corporal

    you don't get much more "libtard" than me, I am everything the radical right hates but..... muslims have declared war on us and it is not a radical fringe, it is the majority and the minority who disagree are silent I think we need to be very careful on how we deal with muslims, we where attacked by muslims working a muslim agenda, the very site where that attack took place is not the place to build a mosque, and it is asking for trouble, it is pouring salt on a very deep wound, I would expect there to be trouble and any muslim that doesn't understand that just needs to answer if we could build a church or temple on tripoli bay??? no we couldn't, I personally think that all radical religions should be effectively diminished, I think the phelps family should be prosecuted but a mosque is almost always used as a recruiting tool by some part of it's organization, it's a reality and it doesn't belong there

    July 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  14. Dave

    Gingrich's argument is very similar to the argument in favor of torture as an interrogation method. The rational is that our enemies are doing it to us so why shouldn't we do it to them? But if we truly believe we are better than our enemies then why would we allow ourselves to resort to their evil ideologies? Religious intolerance in other countries does not justify religious intolerance in this country. Religious freedom is one of the many things that makes this a great country and truly the land of the free. Allow the mosque to be built and prove that we truly can rise above the ideologies that spread hate and intolerance.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  15. Michael, Chapel HIll

    Civil Liberty is not a given for foreign invation.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  16. Paul

    Interesting that Palin and Gingrich both adamantly believe that a Mosque/Community Center should not be allowed near ground zero yet cheer a Supreme Court decision that handguns (concealed or not) be allowed in Washington, DC. I guess some rights identified in the Bill of Rights are more important than others!! Also, right on CdnJim above.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Logical

    I really want to know what Palin and others who oppose this Islamic community center would say if a Jewish community denounced the building of a Christian church near the grounds of a former concentration camp, because the Nazis were Christian.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  18. wlfrnd1A

    We are in a War. There are a lot of different religions out there we don't have to like any of them. God is good for all of us. The hate mongers are first and formost human it's humans hurting people not God or Gods. When humans get hurt, or sick it's the frailty of the human body not a god or gods. Remember it's humans hurting people not God. As a human being I's so very sorry that Muslim extreamists think they have to kill non Muslims to have redemption. That would be why
    I would not want a mosque anywhere near Ground 0 it would be a slap in the face.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  19. Thanks to Prothhero for the reminder

    Prothero reminds us of the saying that sometimes people define a target as immoral to justify their own immoral behavior. It sort of reminds me of the way the Black Panthers with billy clubs at polling places and the ACORN group operate and yet the progressives (read "liberal"), including Obama don't see much wrong with that.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  20. Janice

    Stephen Prothero you are a typical liberal idiot. Once again the conservatives will rescue the idiot Liberals who are bent on destroying this country (and world) even though it means their own destruction. You are the worst plague to ever hit humanity. You are worse than smallpox and cancer combined. Liberals are responsible for more death, destruction and misery than any other group in history. Let us all pray your "leadership" is tried and punished for your treasonous acts.

    July 23, 2010 at 3:55 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.