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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. Alicia Garcia

    This isn't about freedom of religion, this is about politics. I like Mitt Romney, but I think he lost my vote because of this stance.

    I agree with the author of this piece. As a Mormon, I'm very surprised that Mormons are not standing up en masse in favor of the mosque being built. How is a house of worship and prayer offensive to the memory of those who died? To say that it is, is to reveal that you blame all Muslims, and Islam, for the horrible acts of a few extremists. Please, people, think! The only ones who are to blame for 9/11 are the ones who took part, either directly or indirectly, in making it happen.

    That said, the LDS Church has not issued a public statement, and these LDS politicians do NOT represent the Church.

    August 30, 2010 at 5:49 am |
  2. Laura

    I'm Mormon and I support the Mosque being built at Ground Zero. If Harry Reid wasn't trying to get re-elected in AZ, he probably would too. I like to think that Mitt is more of a moderate but is trying to play the conservative card appeal to the Repulican base. Taking these sorts of calculated stands isn't an attribute unique to Mormon politicians though, so don't act like they speak for all of us. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon and a Senator in Utah stood up for the mosque: http://www.fox13now.com/news/kstu-hatch-defends-proposed-mosque-near-ground-zero,0,7425671.story. I would gladly support my Muslim friends or any other religion in exercising their right to have religious freedom.

    August 29, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  3. Rich

    How about we all read the 11th Article of Faith of the Mormon church (written by Joseph Smith):

    "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." (all-caps mine)

    End of argument.

    August 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  4. pete

    http://arno.60.vox.com/

    August 29, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  5. Carol

    I'm a Mormon that believes in both religious freedom and private property rights. I also believe in walking the talk so I support the right of these Muslims to build their mosque. It's simple really. It's not my property and it's not the property of the families affected by 9-11. I don't have to agree with or even like the beliefs of any other religion in order to believe that its followers ought to be able to worship God according to the dicates of their own consciences.

    I question the integrity of any Christian who ignores what Christ said about loving their neighbors (And who is my neighbor?) and their enemies and doing good to those that hate them, etc, etc.

    Those persons who are serious about protecting the wounded sensibilities of the 9-11 families might consider putting their money where their mouths are and donating the gazillions needed for them to buy as many blocks of NYC as they feel the need to control.

    August 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  6. stuart

    @ Jed Merrill,

    I am a mormon, born and raised in the church. To this day, I have never participated in any sort of "extremist" practice, like torture or murdering Indians, or gentiles or any of the insane things you are talking about. I read what you are saying and I couldn't relate to it less. In fact, I live a completely normal and boring life. I live in a duplex go to work, go to church on sundays, pay the bills and look after my family the best I can. I try to be a respectable person, and treat others kindly. I do everything I can to respect others religious freedom.

    Am I a murderer and a Bigot and an extremist and I just didn't know it? How can you reconcile the fact that a perfectly normal person like me could also be some sort of secret extremist? I am a good person and deserve respect.

    No one is innocent here, not mormons, not members of the Islamic faith, not members of the catholic faith, not citizens of the USA. If you go back far enough in any of our histories, you are going to find a bunch of rape, incest, bigotry, and all sorts of nonsense. If you actually think you are built on an innocent foundation, you haven't looked hard enough. Jed are there things in your history that rub you wrong? Was your great great great grandpa a racist? Before the age of communication almost every one was racist out fear of other cultures and societies. We've only begun to deal with some of these things in the last 100 years. The entire human race has been taking turns being is a little disgusting for as long we have been around.

    I operate on the Idea that all of us can be better and should be better regardless of what has happened. What can we do as people to work with each other and hate a little less? Jed what can you do to join hands with the reasonable mormons around you to make your community a little better? Mormons, what can you do to understand the people around you (jed included) a little better to create a little more harmony?

    I would like to live in a country and community where people can deal with each others differences a little more respectfully. I want that for all of us.

    August 28, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Mormmy

    1. Mitt Romney and Harry Reid DO NOT represent the LDS Church.
    2. The LDS Church has not put out a statement about this issue, like it has with other issues (like Gay marriage)
    3. Romney and Reid are POLITICIANS, not religious leaders, In other words: they are thinking about votes, not about representing the Church.
    4. Why single out the "Mormons"? Why don't you look at all the other religions and branches of Christianity and their history and comment on why they should or should not support the muslim cultural center? No religion is free of crazy people doing crazy and stupid things. I'm against torture, and in favor of the cultural center, and I'm a mormon...and Mitt Romney DOES NOT represent me, neither does Harry Reid... Do terrorist represent all muslims? Does Osama Bin Laden represent all muslism? NO! Well, this article is doing the same thing that those that are against the cultural center are doing: generalizing a group based on the actions of a few. Gotta love the irony...

    August 28, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  8. Apple

    1. Mitt Romney and Harry Reid DO NOT represent the LDS Church.
    2. The LDS Church has not put out a statement about this issue, like it has with other issues (like Gay marriage)
    3. Romney and Reid are POLITICIANS, not religious leaders, In other words: they are thinking about votes, not about representing the Church.
    4. Why single out the "Mormons"? Why don't you look at all the other religions and branches of Christianity and their history and comment on why they should or should not support the muslim cultural center? No religion is free of crazy people doing crazy and stupid things. I'm against torture, and in favor of the cultural center, and I'm a mormon...and Mitt Romney DOES NOT represent me, neither does Harry Reid... Do terrorist represent all muslims? Does Osama Bin Laden represent all muslism? NO! Well, this article is doing the same thing that those that are against the cultural center are doing: generalizing a group based on the actions of a few. Gotta love the irony...

    August 28, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  9. Emily

    I'm not a public figure in of any kind, but I'd just like to weigh in and say that I'm Mormon and I support the right of Muslims (or any other religious group) to build this center of worship on this land or any other land they legally own. I'm so disgusted by the Republican fear mongering on this issue that I changed my voting registration back to independent. Just as it would be wrong to judge all Muslims based on a few extremists, it is also inappropriate to assume all Mormons share Mitt's political views.

    August 28, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  10. mac

    Romney must have a short memory. Wasn't the Belmont, MA LDS temple (right in his neighborhood) protested by groups who didn't want it there? And, didn't the church take a "we can put it wherever we want" stance?

    Hypocrites.

    August 27, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  11. Laura d

    "Joseph Smith's thought evolved as he went through life. Initially, the city was just a place for Mormons, a "come-ye-out-of-Babylon-into-Zion" gathering place. But by the time he got to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith saw the city as more open. One of the first ordinances passed by the Nauvoo council was a toleration act specifying that all faiths were welcome in the city and listing a number of them: Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Jews and "Mohammedans," as Muslims were called. There was probably not a Mohammedan within a thousand miles, but it was a gesture of openness to every religion.

    Nauvoo, then, was to be a diverse city, indicating that Joseph Smith's civic idealism went beyond his own people to envision a much more cosmopolitan society. Nauvoo didn't develop that way; it came to an end too soon, but that is what he projected. Up to this point, Joseph Smith's reformist impulses were restricted mainly to the church and its program. But during the Nauvoo period – a seven-year window from Nauvoo's founding in 1839 to the Mormons leaving there in 1846 – he expanded the city's scope." Dr. Richard Bushman
    http://pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Mormonism-and-Politics-Are-They-Compatible.aspx

    August 27, 2010 at 1:07 am |
  12. ME, and I don't mean Ricky Martin

    Everyone is trying to make a mark, stand up for what they think is right, debate the past, not all people have the same God or the same opinion of a higher power. Do something bigger than has been done in the past, but please don't forget. Be sensitive of the things children had to see the day the towers fell, some will hate for a long time others will have the grace to forgive and bless sooner. To You the writer of this, do you really KNOW these people or places or things well enough to write about it? Are you best friends of these people you write about , you have had dinner with them and the family?

    August 27, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  13. Drew

    Pretty pathetic article. I love how, because of only TWO politically motivated Mormons, he lumps the rest of us in the same category. That's a really broad brush you've got there, Mr. Prothero.

    August 26, 2010 at 10:26 pm |
  14. Kyle

    I wish the title of this article was "Why isn't this Mormon . . ." Mitt Romney is a Mormon, but he's also a politician and rides the waves leading to the shores of popularity.
    Looking at it another way, Orrin Hatch (R UT) wrote the law that will ultimately allow the mosque to be built: RLUIPA.
    I am also a Mormon, and fully support the Muslim community and their efforts to worship how, where, and what they may.

    August 26, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
  15. jeffrey Root

    Open up your mind people. You fear what you shouldn't. Let them build. They have only good intentions.

    August 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  16. Jonathan

    The author obviously doesn't understand the LDS church very well. The church tries to remain politically neutral and seldom gets involved in political matters unless it feels certain laws violate it's moral code. Examples include abortion and gay marriage- two very moral issues. The church's role is not to get involved in controversial political debates. That's just bad PR.

    August 26, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  17. Liza

    STOP so much hatreness!! I am a LDS or mormon!! So much advance in technology but can tell the some of you hate the Mormon church so much, "tolerance" If you do not have something nice to say if better if you keep it to yourself!! Mitt Romney and Reed are talking as politicians and those are their own personal ideas, feelings and opinions!! They do not talk for me!!

    August 26, 2010 at 3:06 am |
    • jeffrey Root

      Joseph Smith himself said that all churches that are not of the LDS faith are of the devil. Even James E. Talmage said the same thing. Trust me. I used to be a missionary for the church. They act nice in front of other churches for PR but their doctrine says otherwise. Just read Doctrine and Covenants and you will see what it says.

      August 26, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
  18. Chad

    Jed Merrill, Mel, all the others out there that feel this, or any place, is a good place to attack the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Why? What does it gain for you to try and destroy other people? How does it help you? Do you feel better at night? When you go to bed does God replace your anti-mormon blog with a quarter? Where in any religion or socially accepted teaching does it promote bigotry and hatred? Which your points are not and never were about SOME of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stand about the placement of the mosque, but you wanted to try and hurt the church by bringing up obscure reference and events like mountain meadows. Just let it go! Please, stop and just do something worthwhile with your time. When you want to respond to this blog and fight against a church that does thousands of hours of service and gives thousands...millions in donations and food, instead think, maybe I can go out and help someone today. Go give service and feel good about yourself! Have a good day! 🙂

    August 26, 2010 at 1:16 am |
    • Kirst

      Well said.

      August 26, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  19. Cleia Peterson

    You can not accuse all Mormons. I think you are generalizing us. I am a Mormon and I think what you said is wrong. Do a little research on us before accusing us? You can not say something about a group just because political candidates are saying what they think. First, we follow a prophet not Reid and Romney. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We believe we are all children of a Father in Heaven. Muslims are His children too. I have amazing Muslims friends who I respect and admire. I think Ground Zero has to be a neutral ground. No religion!!!!!If you need a little info on Mormons I would be happy to send our missionaries to explain about Jesus Christ and what we truly believe.

    August 26, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  20. OrrinJ

    I'm LDS, and I say it is fine for a mosque to be built at ground zero. Don't let Mitt Romney fool you into thinking that all Mormons agree with him.

    August 25, 2010 at 10:59 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.