August 20th, 2010
12:36 PM ET

My take: Why aren't more Mormons supporting Islamic Center?

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

When America’s leading Republicans started to ratchet up the rhetoric over the Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero, I immediately thought of my former governor Mitt Romney.

In 2007, when he was running for the Republican nomination for president, Romney gave a speech that I described at the time as “an instant classic in American civil religion." In "Faith in America," he spoke glowingly of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. He also said he had himself learned much not only from Catholics, evangelicals and Jews but also from “the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.”

Romney also chastised earlier Americans, however, for failing to live up to the promises of the First Amendment. Where Reagan had referred to this country as a “shining city on the hill” for all the world to see, Romney said it was important to remember that the United States has also been a place of religious bigotry.

The Puritans arrived in the New World seeking religious liberty, he said. “But upon finding it for themselves,” they “denied it to others.” This bigotry exiled Ann Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and drove Brigham Young and other pioneering Mormons onto their westward trek to Utah.

As I wrote in my 2007 piece on this speech, for Romney, the moral of this history lesson was clear:

Americans today should rise above religious bigotry, not least by evaluating presidential candidates on the basis of their credentials instead of their religious tradition. After all, Romney said, “Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.”

These were the words that came to me when Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and other Republican leaders started to double down on the anti-Islamic rhetoric.

I thought that Romney, as a Mormon, might speak out passionately for the First Amendment. I thought he might remember how the founder of his religion, Joseph Smith Jr., was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. I thought he might recall how the U.S. government brought down much of its coercive power against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Apparently not.  According to a statement released on August 10 by his spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom, “Governor Romney opposes the construction of the mosque at Ground Zero. The wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda compel rejection of this site."

More recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also a Mormon, opened the floodgates for what will likely be a steady stream of Democratic equivocation on this important issue. "The First Amendment protects freedom of religion," Reid’s spokesman Jim Manley said in an August 16 statement. "Sen. Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built some place else.”

One of the realities of robust religious liberty in the United States is that members of minority religions grow complacent over the years.

When Catholics see Muslims denounced as dangers to America, foreigners following the dictates of foreign law, they think “them” rather than “us,” forgetting the burning of their convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834 by anti-Catholic mobs.

When Mormons see Muslims as a group found guilty of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, they think "them" rather than "us," forgetting how Mormons as a group were found guilty of the atrocities of September 11, 1857, when Mormon vigilantes attacked a wagon train of Arkansas emigrants to the Utah territory, killing some 120 innocent men, women, and children.

Perhaps I am wrong for holding Mormons to some higher standard, but I do. I believe that members of a religious group that has been persecuted almost to extinction should stand up and speak out when Newt Gingrich starts likening Muslims to Nazis and Tea Party advocates start referring to Islam as a cult. At a minimum, religious minorities should not fall into the Puritan trap of demanding religious freedom for themselves while denying it to others.

That is why I found the opposition of Abraham Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League to the Park51 project so dispiriting, and why I find the recent statements of Reid and Romney both sad and shameful.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

soundoff (170 Responses)
  1. Davey

    I'm Mormon.

    I think the fact that anyone's even thinking of opposing the mosque is absolutely ridiculous, and it depresses the dickens out of me.

    I also hated Prop 8 passionately.

    I don't know how many of us there are, but we certainly do exist.

    That's all.

    August 25, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
  2. QS

    This issue is being blown into a religious thing. It's so funny how so often the mainstream media and most vocal liberals despise any hint of religion in any part of their lives.

    This issue is about wisdom. Those that would build a mosque in the area of 9/11 are not being wise.

    When I visited Jerusalem and visited the holy shrine, The Dome of the Rock – I would never have thought to do anything to offend those that found that spot holy. We were to all remove our shoes, wear modest clothing and speak in hushed, reverent tones in that space. That is what the Muslim customs required of us. It was not an option, or else we'd be removed. So why, why is it that when there will be those that will be hurt, offended and have old wounds continue to fester – why the relentless pursuit of building where this tragic 9/11 event occurred?

    What are we trying to prove? And why should we have to prove anything to the world?

    The US is the most tolerant of all the nations in the world. We have our foibles and our issues, but in this country – racism is abhorred. You can go to any other nation and find blatant, accepted racism. But not here. We have NOTHING to prove. We are a country that by and large – more than any other country jumps to aide those who need it, regardless of their situation.

    Given that 9/11 was an attack that wounded the heart of this country – I think wisdom, respect and reverence ought to be considered, rather than the appearance of proof that we are okay.

    We can shout rhetoric until our throats are hoarse – but I beg everyone to be wise.

    August 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  3. CentralOregon

    It is an all to common practice for a group to not speak up when another group is being attacked. What we see with some of the elected officials who just happen to be LDS is not different then other groups who do the same. I believe the same practice was in place in the mid 1930's in a country named Germany.

    I hope that there is a backlash in this country against those who are spewing out this type of hatred. We do not have to agree. We do not have to even like other points of view. But once we silence them we will have brought about our own death.

    August 25, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  4. Johnny

    Calling a belief system a "religion" does not make it good or even OK. Read the Muslim "holy" book and then decide if this "religion" is more akin to Christianity (which has a checkered history but at least preaches peace and love) or Nazism. Read it with an open mind and you might be surprised.

    August 25, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • CentralOregon

      Those who claim to practice Christianity long ago left the teachings of the founder, a certain Jewish carpenter who must of been a crazy liberal since He spoke things like "Love your enemy and do good to those that would do you evil." Since Christianity has abandoned the teachings of it's founder I am not sure you can fairly use those teachings to defend that group of people any longer.

      August 25, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  5. Mike H.

    Dennis Smith, former FDNY Firefighter & author of "Report From Engine Co. 82", & "Report From Ground Zero", called for a center to help other learn about other cultures & peoples after 9/11. This "Mosque" is more along those lines than being a regular Mosque.

    Being LDS, I would also like to point out that the Church built a Temple a few years ago at Winter's Quarter, Nebraska, where 2,000 Mormons driven out of Nauvoo IL in the died of cold, hunger, & disease. Considering there was about 45,000 members of the LDS Church at that time, that was a very significant amount of deaths. So, that site was also a painful experience. There are some significant differences of that, than with the whole 9/11 experience, I admit. But, I think this center in NYC could be healing if it's done right.

    Molly: Funny you should mention Genghis Khan. He's regarded as a cultural & national Hero in Mongolia. In Iran & Iraq, he's rated as one of the worst butchers in history. Most of the world tends to agree with idea than Khan was a mass murderer by merciless warfare. In the same way, some in Islam think the 9/11 Hijackers were heroes. But, to many other in Islam they are felt to have shamed Islam by killing thousands of innocents.

    August 25, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  6. Janet Christie

    Mormons were against prop 8. They campained for right to work ( against unions) Still tax exempt????

    August 25, 2010 at 10:27 am |
  7. Laurel Lee Pedersen

    As a practicing Mormon democrat, I would like to express my personal opinion about the mosque at Ground Zero. I hope I follow the 11th Article of Faith (canonized LDS scripture): "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege. Let them worship how, where, or what they may." (Joseph Smith) I feel allowing the mosque would show to the world we, as Americans, choose to allow all people to worship as they may. If anyone visits Ground Zero, one can go with or without visiting the mosque. Please show me a religion or faith that has not had its bigots, extremists, or repugnant members that the mainstream faithful reject. When a Mormon temple or other church building is being built around the world, many rush in to condemn its placement, height, etc. Church leaders do their best to listen, and often make many changes to suit many segments of the community. I feel any house of worship should be welcomed at this site. I would hope that US citizens would not judge the majority of LDS faithful by some of the fanatics and excommunicated fringes who call themselves LDS also. I would like to give the majority of followers of Islam the same privilege, and feel this building would be a testament to our belief in religious liberty. Thank you, Stephen, for a well-reasoned, thoughtful article.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  8. Jeff

    Mitt Romney is not Mormonism. His opinions should not be viewed as the view of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    August 23, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
  9. Trenton

    Didn't Harry Reid say something somewhat like this about Hispanic Republicans a couple of weeks ago? And wasn't he rightly vilified for saying it? To insinuate that because someone belongs to a given group of people, therefore they must all think alike, is bigotry and is logically unsound.

    I won't even touch the factual errors in this column.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  10. Molly

    Well, I see CNN (dis)belief took my last entry off. I guess I'll have nothing more to say.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  11. Dee

    I don't know how "Christians" can act so spitefull and tolerate messages of hate. We need the Christian leaders from across the world to stand up together and say STOP! If a Mosque is built at this site, we need to build a Christian Temple, Cathedral or worship center at this site as well. This way we show the world Christians and Muslims can get along and live in Peace.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • Alicia Garcia

      I actually think the best memorial would be houses of worship of every major world religion (Including ISLAM of course) surrounding Ground Zero as a message to the world that TERRORISM HAS NO RELIGION.

      BTW, I am a Mormon. 🙂

      August 30, 2010 at 6:09 am |
  12. Jeffrey

    You seem to imply that Mitt Romney and Senator Reid speak for the Members of the LDS/Mormon church. They don't. They are just members of the church. That is all, as much as any other senator or politician are members of their respective faith without representing them.

    Many Mormons do support the building of the Mosque. So please don't think all Mormons think or follow what Reid and Romney say.

    August 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  13. sloagm

    Pete: Would you concede that perhaps the extreme views you are ascribing are not the widely held traditions and beliefs of worldwide Islam? In fact, I think it would be very hard to define a "worldwide" Islam. When one muslim cleric is able to issue a fatwa and another is able to renounce it, it makes it difficult to really come to any conclusion what defines the term Islam, except in the broadest sense of the word. It is not unlike the many sects of Christianity that have the same Bible yet interpret it and the creeds in a myriad of ways. Islam, like christianity, must be more precise in its descriptions than just Protestant and Catholic, or Shia and Sunni.

    Like supporting a Muslim's freedom to worship how and where they see fit, I would support a Hindu's freedom to worship in the same way if a muslim tried to stop it. The point is, it is our duty to stand up for religious freedom even if the beliefs are disagreeable, or even if, as Jed believes, we mormons are a cult masking ourselves as a religion.

    From an appropriateness perspective, the gesture to build a mosque at the site of the WTC as a way to "reach out" seems well and good, but will likely be lost on 95% of the people that know about it. In a time when baby steps are needed, this seems like overreaching. It is a generational issue, and it feels like a lot of political capital is being spent by moderate muslims on an issue that will not turn the dial.

    As far as mormons are concerned, the doctrine is clear in the 11th article of faith and nothing more needs to be said on that front. We should neither inhibit the construction or attempt to influence others to prevent its construction. As a house of worship it should be welcomed. But the mosque is being used as a statement as well, so there is political context, not purely religion.

    Mr. Reid's and Romney's comments do not appear to be advocating legal means seeking to prevent the mosque from being built, but question its appropriateness in terms of its effect on the victims families and the broader sensitivities of a nation, strip-club notwithstanding.

    It must not be forgotten that a specific violent subset of muslim extremists, advocating a specific-though-distorted muslim agenda, which was endorsed by senior muslim clerics in certain parts of the world was the cause of this disaster. So it is certainly understandable that there are some specific misgivings to the construction of a muslim mosque on the site.

    August 23, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  14. Pete

    I think some other posters hit on this. But I let me say I am kind of shocked to hear this kind of stuff coming from a religion professor.

    Here is the real truth – not all religions are the same. Not all religions are what westerners would call 'good'. A religion professor should understand the Islam is about submission. They want to make the world submit to a medieval warriors code. Peace is achieved through domination and control.

    Its just a very different morality then we in the West have. If Islam didn't have the 'cover' of being called a religion more people would oppose it. The people that support it are just ignorant of what it stands for. Few people it seems have tried to understand Islam and have read the Koran. If you do these things you will understand why people like myself don't want to see it encouraged.

    Yes its a free country. You can join the American Nazis if you like. But it doesn't mean that those people will have my support. Likewise I don't support any religion that embodies those medieval warrior values. Stoning women to death for adultery, marrying 9 year old girls etc etc. It REALLY IS part of Islam and its just not something that fits well with our society.

    This is why the Islamic world really sees us as sinful and immoral. Our morality has nothing in common with them. Call me a bigot – I don't care. I don't support Islam. I don't want to see it spread. I like our way of life – they can be free to live their way in another country. But I don't want to live under Sharia law or abide by the ways of Mohammed. And if you know Islam you know it doesn't encourage any kind of compromise.

    August 23, 2010 at 9:08 am |
    • Janice N

      This is a "melting pot" of a country. NOTHING fits well in ANY community! Our country is multi-cultural.

      What so-called "standard" would you use to define this vast multi-cultured society without sounding like a selfish and ignorant bigot? Your religious values? The political mantra that is spoon-fed to you through the media? What?

      August 23, 2010 at 9:26 am |
  15. Molly

    Blog what do you mean?

    August 23, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  16. Molly

    Yes Phil,
    It doesn't make sense. Perhaps he hasn'.t been here long enough to realize that "freedom of religion" meant that the government could not decree a religion, and one had the right to one's own understanding of God, PROVIDING it doesn't break the law, as W/ the practioners of Rastafarianism, or other darker beliefs. It has come to mean understanding of, and politeness to, the beliefs of other Americans. Mosque on lower manhattan ? NY wouldn't let the greek orthodox rebuild their church after 9/11, and I believe it's not very polite of the imam and his backers, inc. Maor Bloomberg, to push this on us all; not just to the families, but to the entire nation that had to watch hours of people falling from buildings holding hands, and other horrors. The first shots looked like an Alien invasion, but we learned that it was just the represntatives of the Dark Side showing their intense, insane hatred of our people. Oh, and their special death requests,'please don't bury us w/ women'. When Islam grows more understanding of true freedom, and freedom of religion; allowing the practises of Shites, Sufis, Sikhs, BaHais, Khan followers in Pakistan, Kurds, not to mention Christians and Jews-well, then I might listen to them. Did I mention throwing out sharia, giving women dignity? No I'm going overboard.

    August 23, 2010 at 7:55 am |
  17. Phil in Tokyo

    I believe that anyone has a right to build anything (that is within the laws of the nation), and should not be judged on which religion they belong to.
    However, that said, why does this have to be built where it has the potential to hurt the (still) raw feelings and emotions of the survivors and the families of those that were lost in the disaster of 911?
    I understand that the Imam leading this project is probably one of the best people we can have to bring the United States and the Muslim religion to a place where there can be peaceful coexistence, and I hope he continues to work towards such, however, what can he hope to attain by upsetting so many Americans by insisting on this location? If his true objective is true common peace among differing parties, then I think more effort into resolving the current issue is required.

    August 22, 2010 at 10:53 pm |
  18. Karl

    Sunday August 22, 2010

    After reading the entire blog, I completely disagree with the author. There should not be a Mosque built at 9/11 Ground Zero. The idea is simply not appropriate. Why isn’t there a Catholic Cathedral or a Mormon Temple in Mecca? The idea would only mirror a Mosque at Ground Zero . As Latter-day Saints we are asked set a good example, not force a good example. When the church decided to build a temple in Denver they had several possible sites. The top site on the list was in an upscale neighborhood. The residents adamantly opposed the construction of a Mormon Temple in their neighborhood. So, the Mormons chose a different place to the build the temple. If Muslims NEED a Mosque in New York City, build in a different place. Why does it have to be built on the site where thousands lost their lives in the name of Islam? Other r examples would be to allow the Japanese to build a Temple in Pearl Harbor or the US Military to build a bomb making factory in Hiroshima. Doing so would be an insult and affront to the thousands that perished at the hands of the Japanese and an insult to the Japanese that suffered the horrible death of an atomic bomb. This Mosque issue is not about religious tolerance!!! It is about laughing in the face of the memory of innocent people who lost their lives. Even more this Mosque issue is about obeying and sustaining the Law of the land. Those that oppose the Mosque being built do not oppose it because they are not religiously tolerant. As a Christian nation we believe in the law of the Land. The Constitution is what has permitted Christianity and Mormonism to exist and to grow. As Mormons we believe in Article of Faith #12 which says, “We believe in being subject to Kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” When foreigners or those of other faiths choose to come to the United States we believe that they should obey our laws. In fact, we believe the law of the land over the law of religion because the law of the land is the foundation for our religion. Muslims believe in the law of the religion over the law of the land. Even more their religious laws conflict with the laws of our land. When religious laws conflict with the law of this land, they become unconstitutional and require opposition. We do not believe in stoning a women to death if she commits adultery. We also do not believe in overthrowing our government. If I plotted to over through the US Government the FBI would be at my doorstep. Now, if Muslims vocally project in favor our laws in their religion, strongly oppose Sharia Law, vehemently oppose al-Qaida , then go ahead and build all the Mosques you want, anywhere. I do not see a voice for of opposition in the Muslim faith towards defending the laws in the United States that permit religious freedom. Perhaps over time they may change. That is my hope.

    August 22, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
  19. Hannah

    I, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, do believe that Muslims have the right to build a mosque near ground zero or anywhere they see fit. I think we do need to have religious freedom for all people. You ask why more LDS people don't support the building of the mosque, yet have you asked members of the church? Yes, Mitt Romney and Harry Reid are members of the church they do not speak for the church or its members. They do not hold a public office in the name of the church either. When you see two or more members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, do you think "them rather than us"?

    August 21, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Quiet Observer

    Who made Romney poster boy for the LDS church? My religion (yes, LDS) does not assign me a political stance, I'd appreciate it if you didn't assign me one. I'm can decide that for myself, thanks!

    Jed, you sure are a vicious, angry guy. It's a bummer, dude!

    August 21, 2010 at 10:21 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.