The controversy over a proposed mosque near ground zero in Lower Manhattan preoccupies an increasing number of Americans, who now are hearing rhetorical bigotry more disgraceful and dangerous than anything admitted to our national conversation for decades.
According to a Rasmussen poll published Monday, 85% of the country's voters say they are following stories about the controversy, a 35% increase over the level of interest the survey found last month. Nearly 6 in 10 voters say they are "following the story very closely."
Some of this may have a bit to do with the season: August is a notoriously slow month for news, and lacking a natural disaster or missing blonde to obsess over, the cable networks and commentators who fuel the 24-hour news cycle have made the proposed Islamic center and mosque the centerpiece in their overheated echo chamber. Still, even allowing for the timing, it's clear that this controversy has tapped a troubling vein of popular suspicion and unease concerning Muslim Americans and their beliefs.
Unhappy history tells us that this is dangerous territory, and the willingness of some to exploit it is one of this affair's sorriest aspects. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for example, has compared those who support the mosque's construction to Nazis, who "don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington." A Republican National Committee member from Iowa insists that President Obama is a Muslim. (If so, what the devil was all that Jeremiah Wright stuff about?) Evangelist Franklin Graham tells CNN that the president carries "the seed of Islam" — whatever that is.
One of the most distressing things is how rapidly this controversy has shifted from an ostensibly principled objection — the center's backers have a legal and constitutional right to build on the site, but it is "insensitive" to do so — to a blanket objection to Islam in America. Such a slide was entirely predictable, because the minute you impute collective responsibility for 9/11 to U.S. Muslims, generalized expressions of bigotry are rendered licit. Thus, we have organized campaigns opposing the construction of mosques in places as distant from ground zero as Wisconsin, Tennessee and Kentucky. In Santa Clara, a group objects to a mosque adding a minaret, while in Temecula, Pastor Bill Rench argues that his Muslim neighbors ought not be allowed to build a mosque on a site adjoining his Calvary Baptist Church.
Of all the dangerous nonsense being batted about, nothing quite tops a recent piece in the National Review Online in which Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, argues that the mosque has provoked "a heated debate" about the "limits" of religious freedom "in the age of Islamist terrorism." The federal government, she alleges, has a right to "defend itself" against those "promoting radical ideas in the context of Islam." To that end, "shutting down a particular religious establishment — or preventing it from being built — does not constitute barring a religion as a whole.... It could all depend on what the building is used for … [and] the impact of the preaching and instruction that takes place there."
Let's get this straight: The government is going to get into the business of evaluating what's going to be taught in a house of worship before issuing a building permit? Once a mosque, church or synagogue is constructed, government agents are going to enter, monitor the preaching and, if they deem it a threat to somebody's notion of security, shut the place down? (The smoke rising from such an event would issue from the ruin of the 1st Amendment.)
Moreover, why stop with mosques? In Gainesville, Fla., the Dove World Church wants to burn hundreds of copies of the Koran. Some of us regard book-burning as a threat to the Constitution. Let's shut them down. In Pensacola, Fla., Baptist pastor Chuck Baldwin teaches his flock that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant, that nullification and secession are valid concepts and that we need a second revolution. These are the ideas that provoked the Confederate treason and Civil War. Shut him down. (We're not going to do either of those things because if the 1st Amendment means anything, it's that some people have a right to spout idiocy and others have a right to listen — or not.)
We do need to stop, take a deep collective breath and pull back from the edge. The abyss on the other side is dark and deep.