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. concerned

    Palin and Gingrich truly represent the feelings and concerns of the vast majority of americans.
    Islam is not defensible. It is not possible for the west to live with islam. If the religion of islam grows, the religious fervor will eventually cause a division in the USA and will have to be split in two regions: muslim and non-muslim. They only need more numbers to accomplish that.

    July 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  2. JohnQuest

    It seems that I am no longer living in the country I fought and bled for, Freedom of Religion means just that Freedom. Everyone here has the right to worship or not to worship as they please as long as they do not infringe on anyone else. For us to remain free that has to include ALL AMERICAN even the ones we do not agree with. to deny this fundamental right to another citizen denies this right to all citizens We are Americans at least we were before blind hysterical fear took over.

    July 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  3. SonOfAdam

    Being a Muslim who has been living in the US for most of my adult life, I am truly saddened to see the hateful comments here. Having seen Pre & Post 911 America, I can tell you that we are going in the wrong direction.
    I would like to ask how many people who have been posting comments acting as "analysts" have visited a mosque in their area?
    If the answer is NO, then I invite you to do it as soon as you can. You have to learn about the beautiful religion Islam from a practicing Muslim.
    I have to point out that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the US and the rest of the world. The message of peace and harmony is one of the core elements in our faith. 1 in every 4 persons that you meet is a Muslim!
    Here is a verse from the Qur'an that teaches us the proper etiquettes of having dialog:
    "And argue not with the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), unless it be in (a way) that is better (with good words and in good manner), except with such of them as do wrong, and say (to them): "We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our Ilâh (God) and your Ilâh (God) is One (i.e. Allâh), and to Him we have submitted (as Muslims)." (Qur'an – 29:46)
    The key to our problems is gaining proper knowledge, and all of us are responsible for what we choose to learn!
    God help us all!

    July 23, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • g

      And I have to say that islam is all about control and brutality. Don't you dare criticize how Americans feel about 9/11. One only has to look at any newspaper to know what islam is about. So go and kid yourself, you fool no one. If you don't like the comments, well you are disliked even more.

      July 23, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
    • david stone

      Yes many like myself are painfully aware that it is a fast growing cult and it should be setting off warning bells.....as the Dutch figured out already (and now the French), islam runs counter to a tolerant, progressive, free society....it is a cancer that is completely intolerant, yet asks that others tolerate IT. There is no redeeming quality to it, and any country run by strict islamic law is a hell hole......NO....we don't want more of it here, and many like myself wish you, and all like you would LEAVE...you cry about how you are a "good muslim" and "don't support" terrorism I'm sure....yet whenever the "bad few" do horrible things, the majority like you stand silently by, providing tacit support. Whether because you support them, or are too scared to stand up and take your religion back, many like myself no longer CARE, and just want all of you GONE

      July 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • Guester

      Son – Fastest growing by percentage in US because statistically a smaller group gains more percentage points as it adds members than a larger group does.

      By real people worldwide : By number of new adherents Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the world with 30,360,000 new adherents annually (from 2000-2005). This is followed by Islam with 23,000,000 new adherents annually and Hinduism at 13,000,000.

      July 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  4. Paul

    Isn't there a christian church directly across the street from the WTC site? Wouldn't it be wonderful to a conglomeration of religious sites, including this mosque, in the same area? Besides the hijackers, weren't there muslims in the towers that were killed? Just remember, our founding fathers were afraid of religious intolerance and the effects it could have on our society. Benjamin Franklin became a large contributor to the building of jewish synagogues in early America to help promote religious diversity (and battle anti-semitism). Our society was created out of a desire to foster all freedoms - by people seeking refuge from religious oppression.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • Mark Burks

      Mr Stone,
      Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Adams, and other statesmen of their era corresponded with their counterparts in Arab countries and invited their Imam's to our shores. Our statesmen wrote openly to Muslim faithful of their hopes to hear their sermons delivered in our country.
      Benjamin Franklin had the wisdom and humor to differentiate between humanity's reverent and its cracked pots.

      July 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  5. obsthetimes

    Steven Prothero is absolutely wrong and extremely naive. Steven do you have many muslim friends and have you lived extensively in the middle east?
    Sure we must protect our civil liberties and our core values. But those core values will need defending from core islamic values which are by nature extreme.
    Allow Islamic values to proliferate unchcecked and they shall soon take over america like the Asian Carp has taken over the Mississippi. In 2100 my great grand daughter might not be allowed outside without a burqa and be forbidden from eating a salami sandwich or drinking a margaritar. BTW I really do believe that!

    July 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  6. Smash

    Does anyone wonder why they want this building finished and dedicated by 9/11? Does anyone wonder where they are getting the funding to build this building? Islam is behaving more like a political movement rather than a religion. Their laws affect everyone's social life no matter what your religion belief is. Their agenda based on the last 20 years to to convert and dominate! Another question. What construction company in NY will bid to build this structure?

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

      I can say no more than I agree with your comment. With each new word I risk being censored by CNN moderators. These comment boards are controled to express the opinion of CNN.

      July 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  7. Rufsmith

    First let me state... emphatically, I am not a fan of Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin, but I do agree with their assessment, statements, whatever, on not building an Islamic center, whatever the full intenteded use it is meant to be at Ground Zero. It would be a great disgrace to the survivors of those killed in the WTC towers. Plain and simple, build it some where else, if for no other reason than for Muslims to honor the dead brought about by their religious beliefs in general. There is no way you can convince me there isn't a hidden agenda here, come on, face the facts, all of them.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  8. Paula

    Logic would then dictate that no christian church be bulit near abortion centers that suffered the murder of physicians by christian terrorists.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  9. EricNDC

    I wonder how many protesters on here can tell me EXACTLY: 1-the location of where this mosque and cultural center is proposed to be located (give me an address and lot number). 2-Who proposed it. 3-How many REAL AMERICANS who were Muslim died on 9/11 at the hands of terrorists who were law abiding, peace loving AMERICANS at work in NY, DC or riding on a plane. I get so sick of the back@sswords people yelling religious lies and believe it, but have no clue exactly what they are saying. I live in DC and would gladly welcome a mosque, a church, a buddist temple, a synagogue anywhere near the Pentagon, because I am a TRUE AMERICAN and welcome all religions and all people to speak and worship where they please. And CONDONE anyone who shuts down that freedom or wages terrorism of any kind.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  10. Its too hot to be wearing towels on our heads

    I promise not to tell your wife about what you really think 🙂


    July 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  11. david stone

    There is a HUGE difference between random acts of barbarity that have been committed by someone claiming a religion, and the acts committed in an organized effort under the flag of a religion where the majority stands dead silent when these things occur.....the "peaceful" majority in islam doesn't raise a finger to stop the "violent few", because they either support them, or they are scared to stand up for what's right...either way islam is a cancer, and stands apart from every other religion

    July 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  12. whatever

    Of all the places they could have picked to build a mosque.. they pick a spot 2 blocks from ground zero. And on top of that they plan to unveil this new mosque on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. What kind of bull crap is that?

    Hell they might as well just go ahead and build the damn mosque right on the site of ground zero.. I'm sure all of you would still be ok with that.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • david stone

      You are correct....let's just build it right at ground zero, on top of the miscellaneous small bits of the remains of victims....that will show everyone how "tolerant" and "PC" we are....just sickening

      July 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  13. TRUTH

    This is all about fund raising and making some noise to get some political mileage, in the name of Islam; just ignore... these politicians speak different language when they need American Muslims votes and their money as campaign funds...

    July 23, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  14. Sunny

    Why does it have to be built at round zero? Anywhere else but ground zero.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  15. concerned

    I thought that coming to America was about becoming an american, accepting its western values, opportunities and liberties. Coming to America in order to change its values and what it stands for, of course you will find the rejection of thousands of americans along the way. Just because you have a passport you are an american, just saying.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  16. Dude

    Maybe America should get out of the business of allowing any structures for religions to be built. That would show them.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  17. Phil from Corpus Christi

    A mosque at Ground Zero would be the ideal means to publicly proclaim that the US recognizes that Islam as a whole is not responsible for 9/11 and that only Islamic EXTREMISTS were responsible. It would proclaim that the US is NOT AT WAR with Islam as President Obama has stated. It could also be seen as the religion of Islam asking forgiveness for what only a few extremists of their faith did. If the US and Islam are to live in peace and not descend together into an ever-growing spiral of hate and retribution, we as a nation must recognize that it was Al Qaeda, a fringe-group of extremists, that committed the atrocity and not Islam as a whole. To hold Islam responsible as a whole for the actions of Al Qaeda is the same as holding Christianity responsible for the actions of some right-wing militia group whose name most Christians would not recognize.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • TRUTH

      YEP... WE as a nation must standup and show those TERRORISTs that We are not against Islam but against those who kill innocent people which is condemned in Islam.. SIMPLE

      July 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  18. Thomas Mabry

    Your take is disingenuous if you read the entire statement and take it as a whole you would understand that he meant that figuratively. Why champion a mosque at ground zero and not a synagogue or Christian church in Saudi Arabia. It is a test of how subservient we can be to tolerance and political correctness and timidity and all that blah blah blah garbage. It's a slap in the face and everyone knows it. Hey why don't we just let build a big red crescent at the site of flight 93 plane crash in the PA field???

    July 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  19. Tim Sunderland

    One of the cornerstones of this country when it was founded was freedom from religious persecution. That includes Islam. No one said these rights were easy all the time, but they are part of the principal that inspired a revolution and started this country.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • david stone

      Sadly, this is the way the evil death cult called islam slithers in under the door....flying the "freedom of religion" banner.....even if the founding fathers would have been physically ill if they ever foresaw what is happening now....if we don't find some constitutional remedy that somehow allows us to stop this evil pretending to be a religion, it may well be our undoing

      July 23, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  20. Evan

    Stephen, America was founded on religious freedom yes. But you are losing this argument grossly. Religious freedom is one thing. Building a monument on the site where 2,000 Fathers, Mothers, Husbands, Wives, and Children were killed, to the same god that this violence was carried out under, means something quite different than simple religious freedom. Especially to your fellow American citizens who were killed that day or lost their family members and suffer every single day for the rest of their lives because of it. And you actually support appeasing this religion, under which these violent acts were carried out? Clearly, nobody is making anyone stop building mosques. It's about the location of ONE mosque, which is quite different. And you are obviously misunderstanding Newt Gingrich's argument. Gingrich is not saying America should do what Saudia Arabia does or what Syria does, he is saying if WE are going to allow THEM religious freedom here in our country, THEY should allow US religious freedom in their country. It is not that hard to comprehend. Frankly, you should be ashamed to call yourself an American.

    July 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • Sweetenedtea

      The biggest flaw with your argument, and with most of the anti-mosque arguments here, is no-one is building a mosque on Ground Zero. Not a single person has proposed that. They want to build one *near* Ground Zero. Are we now in the business of trying to prevent things taking place somewhere besides the location of the Twin Towers? Are we suggesting outlawing proximity for fear that the winds will somehow mix our breath with theirs?

      July 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
    • krashundburn

      Sweetenedtea, you said:
      """The biggest flaw with your argument, and with most of the anti-mosque arguments here, is no-one is building a mosque on Ground Zero. Not a single person has proposed that. They want to build one *near* Ground Zero."""

      No, it's not a flaw. It's a clue to how many people feel about it. Muslims "only" want to build NEAR Ground Zero and we have this vociferous opposition as a result. This should tell you something.

      It's a sensitivity issue and a double standard at that. The Muslims behind this need to understand the hypocrisy here.

      Maybe we could allow the mosque if they'd agree to a portrait of Allah in the lobby?

      July 23, 2010 at 7:07 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.