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. Carmen

    Reading these posts I wonder how much supposed experts actually know about Islam. I'm no expert but I have a degree in Middle East foreign policy, have read the Koran twice, and have also traveled extensively throughout the ME. Sadly, thats far more than most who write about it. Islam was expanded through by the sword from its inception. The Muslim prophet was a warrior who subjugated populaces. Following him were Arab "religious" rulers, as well as the Turks, who followed suit. A common practice was to place a mosque at the site of a victory, a token if you will. While surely not all Muslims believe Islam should be spread by the force, a surprising majority do. If people actually read the history of the Byzantine empire the similarities between then and now in terms of reaction to the threat, division and inaction, us shockingly similar to now. Western culture is under attack, not just by "terrorists" but by a wider Islamic populace then we want to admit. All that said, to allow a mosque to built on the site were two thousand died at the hands of Islamic warriors is so obscene its hard to take seriously those who support it. Extrermism in the defense of liberty is not a vice.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  2. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    I would like to ask those who are against this mosque in NYC whether they're also against the mosques in their own cities and communities (you may not think you have one, but a lot of mosques are storefront operations, like church groups). Are you investigating and protesting those mosques in your own backyard?

    Please remember this: the victims in the World Trade Center were as diverse a bunch of Americans as you can get, just as you would expect of New York City. Did you know that several dozen of the 3000 were Muslim? I'm not talking about the hijackers–I mean Muslims who worked in the buildings. There were innocent Muslim passengers on the planes. There was a Muslim NYPD cadet who died, as so many did, attempting to save others.

    This was an attack on AMERICANS, regardless of the faith of the victims! Don't dishonor the memory of innocent Muslim American victims of 9/11 by saying a place where they would pray is nothing but a shrine to their murderers.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  3. The Doctor

    Sweetenedtea- You are such an idiot that the instument that could possibly measure the indifference to your rant has yet to be measured. And to all those here that equate Islam and Christianity as being equals in terms of fanaticim know this: Yes there are fanatics in both religions but only one of them inspires and calls for fanatical and barbaric behavior and that is Islam. Each and every time any Christion has done barbaric things in the name of Christianity it is they that are at fault for not living up to it;s principles not Christianity which consistently forbids those actions. That is the difference, all people are fallable and do wrong but Christianity, not Islam, never endorses that behavior. Wake up. No mosque and for that matter no muslims.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  4. Dude

    It seems strategic to allow a mosque to be built at ground zero. It would prevent a future attack on the area by islamic extremists because they would be breaking religious law to by bringining death and harm to felolow muslims and destruction of a holy mosque.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • david stone

      WRONG.....in Iraq mosques were bombed, burned, and used the used to draw fire...these fools have no problem with blowing themselves and their buildings up.....and for the record, mosques are traditionally erected in honor of a martyr or martyrs....that is EXACTLY what this mosque will honor

      July 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • concerned

      You would think so, but the facts are VERY different!!

      July 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      That would be strategic in a really weak way.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  5. Art

    Steve, if the murderer of your family decided to move next door to you, would that be his right??? Would you be perfectly fine with this?? Don't be a fool, of course we have to respect civil liberties, but what about COMMON SENSE!?? You would stand out in front of his yard and protest no differently than anyone else whos family was slain by murderous tyrants.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  6. david stone

    In every other religion the majority stand up to a minority of whackos.....not so in islam where they stand by silently wringing their hands..yes other religions once had a "convert or die" philosophy, and yes they killed in the name of their religion....but all the others stopped that practice centuries ago...islam is a throwback to the dark ages, and that is being generous....more like the stone age, where women were dragged around by their hair....making them wear that stupid sheet with an eye slit is just horrendous, along with not allowing them to drive, get educated, vote, have equal legal rights etc....gays are to be killed...those of other faiths the same.....so WHY do we owe ANY tolerance to the most intolerant "religion" in existence?

    July 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      If I may add, the problem isn't just the minority of whakos. The majority also believes in living within ear shot of a mosque blaring azaan 5 times a day. Strict religious adherence to a plethora of rules and certain social norms. Western civilization and Islam are not compatible. Period!. Frankly I would not want to live near a mosque. I do not wish to hear the prayer call several times a day. I wish Muslims the best and I do not believe that my views are prejudicial. Its as simple has not wanting to live right next door to JFK or O'hare!

      July 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  7. Bob

    'tis truly the land of the free... to persecute those of different religions.

    Was ever thus. That's why the puritan settlers came. But anyway... seems to me that if you truly value the American constitution you really can't argue against the right to build that mosque, although I'm sure many of those voicing opposition are the same people who vigorously claim the constitution guarantees their right to bear arms. Funny thing is, last time I checked modern American society doesn't have much need for a well armed militia, but I'm sure if you really want to bear arms the American armed forces would welcome you.

    But I digress... building a Mosque in that location is clearly more than a little insensitive. I defend their right to do it, but it doesn't do them any favors in terms of changing the common perception of Islam. Maybe that would be a better way to approach this debate – sure, you have a right to build there, but if your goal is truly to change people's perception of Islam to a more tolerant religion and desirable part of the community perhaps you could consider building it a few blocks away instead?

    July 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  8. concerned

    Who is providing the money for this islamist mosque center? islam is not only religious, but political too.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  9. matthew

    If only the internet, mass print type and the like had been around during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials. What makes Christianity any more moral than any other major religion? The Catholic church sweeps all of their indiscretions under the rug. The LDS massacred hundreds of innocent people. We infected the local natives with small-pox and other diseases. We preach how moral and just we are as a society and how we believe in equity and parity in OUR society and then try and push this myopic version on everyone else, while we retain the right to adhere to none of these tenets. A handshake and learning something about your neighbor goes a lot further than the sword, but I shouldn't have to remind all of the religious zealots out there bellowing about this topic that this is true.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • david stone

      Simple answer....no other "religion" still goes by the mantra of "convert or DIE"......in the name of no other religion are people beheaded or stoned in front of cheering crowds....in no other religion is rape the womans fault.....in no other religion are people screaming their religious chant as they run planes into skyscrapers and kill 3000 human civilians in the name of RELIGION....yes all the religions have a dark past, but all the others stopped killing in the name of religion centuries ago

      July 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • Frogist

      Of course not, david stone. There are no gay-bashers, abortion doctor killers or child molesters in any other religions today... are there? I wished upon a star that you were a troll... The star said, "I doubt it."

      July 26, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  10. Thoroughbred

    The writer's humorous suggestion that the New York Times – by Mr. Gringrich's way of thinking – might ought to be banned until Saudi Arabia allows free speech would find a lot of support among some at the current time. Closing the NYT outright for any reason would be more to their liking; no excuse needed.

    However, Mr. Prothero, your true liberal bias surfaced in your last sentence. Sarah Palin's appeal to human decency wasn't a call for curtailing anyone's rights guaranteed them under the Constitution. Saying otherwise is hedging the truth which brings me to the point of my post.

    We have lost more than civility and decency in this country. We've lost our moral center and an essential sense of right and wrong. Whether it's a right wing pundit who intentionally edits a videotape of a government worker giving a speech to make her say something she did not; the party loyal who insist that since that worker was pushing an egalitarian agenda the altered video was justified; or a News Week columnist who contends a national conservative persona advocates a curtailment of rights based on what is decent, we skew the truth in America all the time. And we do so at our own peril.

    How did we get to this place? Part of it is the legacy of the humanist idea of relativity in human experience. The practice of this "neutrality" is no more in evidence than in our political system where, under the guise of freedom, we can invent all kinds of things about those with whom we disagree and pass it off as Gospel.

    There was a time when we paid lip service to simply doing the right thing. We don't even pretend any longer, inventing all kinds of reasons and excuses to push our own narcissistic and self-serving agendas. A civilization that refuses to pass on a set of core values such as honesty, truthfulness and personal integrity is a civilization standing at the precipice. At least honoring the truth bonds us in a common language and conduct so that all kinds of business can get done.

    The Cordoba Initiative – irrespective of its motives – while tacky and insensitive, most likely and should be approved. That's how we work in our society. If only we paid such high honor and esteem to honesty and truth and nurtured them with the same degree of care we do our basic rights.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  11. Brian

    while I can't remembering ever agreeing with Sarah Palin on anything, I think it is moronic to put a mosque in this site. I am also interested in learning about all religions, always have been, but the last decade has really changed my opinion on Islam. Granted there are extremists in all religions, historically, but where are all the moderate denouncers to all the extremism. Almost non-existent. Where are all the well respected members in their societies coming out against their actions in a necessary vocal way, in order to save their religion.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      Brian, Muslim extremist kill more Muslim than they kill any other group. Remember we are also killing a lot of Muslims and we are allowing Israel to kill them too. Whom should the Moderate Muslims protest to?

      July 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |

    When Mexico defeated us at the battle of tha Alamo they raised their flag in victory. When our brave soldiers took Iwo Jima they raised the US flag...in victory. The Islamists destroyed the World Trade Center along with several thousand people. Now they are raising their "flag" the Islamic Center. We have submitted.. that is what Islam is about- SUBMISSION. We will not be defeated by facism,by communism, nor by the Islamists. We will be defeated by political correctness.. a philosophy which in part depends on our blinding ourselves to reality.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
  13. JustNo

    I am a survivor of 9/11
    I have injuries
    I have nightmares still
    I have no forgotten
    I will NEVER forget
    I worked there, i was there that day, I was injuried and I saw the deaths of those tho jumped from the building.

    My life is changed forever. NO MOSQUE Its an insult to the memory, the pain, the suffering STILL going on. It is acknowledging their faith has some good, really? I don't care. You want to make an impression of your religon standing on the side of right and good? Then Join the war to irradicate these monsters from this planet. Make them pay a price for using your religion as a scapegoat. BE ASHAMED and ANGRY! Do NOT expect me to turn the other cheek. More than just people and buildings burned that day. Lost is my respect for your religion, people and rights.

    And yes, that fire still burns brightly. Adding a Mosque will only fuel it more.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
    • Damien


      July 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  14. BTW

    I am a minority muslim and it really bothers me when I read the sentiments expressed here condoenming my religion. I agree what happened is sad and should never had happened. It affected us all as a society inside and outside our religion. The majority muslims are peaceloving friendly people. How many people do you know who are muslims in the US and are not law abiding? One thing you forget is by the action of a extremely small fanatic population you all blame the religion or muslims in genreral. What does the rest of us have to do with this? It's almost as if someone actions are blamed on someone else. You all also forget that the day 911 happened it wasn't only the Chirstains who died or were targeted. A lot of muslims also worked in the twin towers. Terrorist don't see religious they just have an agenda. It's a shame that they used religion for their own agenda. There are fanatics and extremist everywhere but always in a minority does that mean all religion are geared to extremism? Also the debate about a Mosque around ground zero...true Muslims can pray when ever and where ever they desire. In their offices or homes or parks to have a building structure is just a politial uproar to have something new to play with the emotions of people. Be intelligent and don't let politician over power your thought process.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • Its too hot to be wearing towels on our heads

      Oh sorry... didn't mean to hurt your feelings.

      Don't worry... I have equal hatred of all religions. You are all a bunch of suckers.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
    • david stone

      IF the majority of muslims were so darn "peace-loving" they would stand up, and snuff out the "small minority" doing all the horrible things. But they DON'T. They stand by playing innocent, wagging their finger on an internet forum or doing some other meaningless half-hearted thing to "show how they are really good people". When terrorism occurs, most muslims are DEAD SILENT. This provides tacit support. Whether they secretly support the barbaric acts, or are just too scared to confront and stop them, either way I have no use for muslims, and I think the majority of Americans share this feeling.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
    • BTW

      @david stone and how many peaceful muslims do you know that you claim the peaceloving muslims are not doing anything?

      July 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      If you're really sad and empathic then have some sensitivity to how new yorkers feel and do NOT force this mosque down our throats!

      July 23, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
  15. david stone

    If someone made a grand public anouncement tomorrow that they had a new "religion" they wanted everyone to accept, and they told us it would include complete intolerance of gays, women's rights, all other religions, and that punishments like dismemberment would be used for various crimes, and that it is all based in a "convert or die" philosophy....groups would rise up to oppose it.....yet....this is just what islam is, and for some reason people act as if it is excused because it is a pre-existing religion....

    July 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
  16. Guester

    The Middle East is a region that is sociologically stuck in the Middle Ages. The societies there never underwent the Enlightenment that occurred in Europe. As such Islam really doesn't fit into the modern world. It's not just terrorists but also Sharia law and the disrespect of women and lack of social tolerance. Its great to be tolerant of differences but tolerance of everything is foolish.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • BTW

      please be mindful it's not the religion that disrespects Woman. It's the culture, dominance of man and the illetracy rate.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
    • The Lab Rat

      A theocratic culture, that is. Hence the connection to the religion.

      July 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
  17. Its too hot to be wearing towels on our heads

    I don't care for Gingrich in general... but what is so bizarre about his comment? YOU DO REALIZE MR. PROTHERO that there are Christians and even small jewish populations in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, etc? So... Mr. Gingrich decides to point out that before we should be catering to muslims, they should also be catering to Christians in their own countries? I dont see a problem with that statement. Everyone expects the US to be the model for equality. I say... get rid of your towels, stop enslaving your wives, and wake up to the 21st century... before we start treating your rag tag 3rd world countries as anything more than [BEEP]holes.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
  18. Marlene

    It's interesting to me that fellows like New Gingrich endorse strict readings of the Constitution, until it clashes with their post Falwell-Republicanism morals. That's the nice thing about a constitution; it can't be rewritten to suit a single person's mores.

    Gingrich committed a logical fallacy in his justifications for violating a group's civil liberties; I just wish more people would open their eyes to it.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  19. TRUTH

    Please share proof that they supported the Terrorists... This is ridiculous !!!

    July 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
  20. CLH

    Building a Muslim center with a prayer facility (a Mosque) so near to ground zero is a very bad idea and completely insensitive to the real americans that lost there life to Islam terrorist Build your Mosque some where else in NY but NOT THERE!.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
    • Brian

      Explain "real Americans"?

      July 23, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • david stone

      "Real Americans"? Allow me to explain what that means....it means someone who puts being an American above any religion....unlike true followers of islam who are Muslims first, and usually have some empathy for terrorism committed in the name of allah

      July 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • Brian

      I agree. But, the vast, vast majority of Muslim Americans do put America first. If they didn't we would see suicide bombings in Dearborn, Michigan everyday. With this definition I have a hard time seeing Newt Gingrich, potential president, as a real American. I am more than fine with this opinion of his if he remains as a private citizen, but for any leader to put religion first, as he is doing, over the ideals of the Constitution, is un-American.

      July 23, 2010 at 4:43 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.