Let me begin by being clear…. building a mosque anywhere near ground zero demonstrates cruel insensitivity toward the families of both the victims and the heroes of the deadliest attack in history on American soil. It has rightly been compared to building a monument to Japanese Imperialism at Pearl Harbor or a placing a statue of Hitler at Auschwitz. The Muslim world, while publically feigning outrage at the opposition the mosque has generated is privately celebrating the irony of the most powerful county in the world allowing such an "in your face" display of Jihadist triumphalism.
Having said that, all the heated rhetoric being generated by the debate over this issue needs to be dialed back a level. In a country that cherishes freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and private property rights, the force of the government cannot undo some things that ought not be done. People still have the right to be wrong if they are operating within their constitutional rights and the scope of the law. I agree that ground zero is hallowed ground. But unless the U.S. government is willing to declare it and the surrounding area a nationally protected site, private property owners have a right to build whatever they want.
On Friday night President Obama spoke at the Iftar dinner, an evening ritual during Ramadan when Muslims break their daily fast with dinner after sunset. Concerning the Mosque being planned near ground zero the President said:
"Let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe the Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure."
His comments created a firestorm on the right. GOP Senator John Cornyn accused the president of being "disconnected from mainstream America." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted on Saturday, "President Obama is profoundly wrong in misrepresenting the ground zero mosque. There is no issue of religious liberty." Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin asked, "Mr. President, why are they so set on marking an area with a mosque steps from what you described, in agreement with many, as hallowed ground?"
Families of the victims of 9/11, already enraged by plans to build the mosque, reacted to President Obama's comments like salt being poured into an open wound. The group 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America released a statement saying Obama "has abandoned America at the place where America's heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see."
Those are strong words that reflect the depth of the emotional response the building of this mosque and community center has generated. Like Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero will forever be a symbol of those in the world who would extinguish the light of freedom and trample the rights of the individual. It will also represent the resilience of the American spirit and the resolve of the American will.
But Ground Zero must not become an excuse for taking away the rights of property owners because of their religious beliefs or because we are incensed by their lack of sensitivity. If the people behind the Cordoba Project are closet terrorists then let's clean out and the closet and close down the mosque. If it can be proven they intend to use the mosque and community center as an incubator for Islamic hatred against the United States the site should be cordoned off as a crime scene.
But if no criminal activity can be proven and no terrorist connection can be made, we must not call upon the forces of any government to prohibit the project. Freedom means being free to be wrong without being forced to be right by the strong arm of government. I am personally offended by those who think building this mosque on this particular site is a good idea. But I would rather be personally offended by a bad idea than to be part of the government enforcement of what it thinks is a good idea.
The President is certainly politically tone deaf on this issue but he also happens to be constitutionally correct. As Christians, we must not allow our emotions to guide our thinking when it comes to the understandably visceral response we have when we think about what happened on 9/11. Part of what makes our country different from every other country in the world is our ability to be offended without taking our offense out on those who have the right to be wrong. We should condemn the building of this mosque near hallowed ground. We should use all of our powers of persuasion to convince the owners of the property that nothing good can come from raising a symbol of the religion that inspired the death of so many within sight of their final resting place.
But when all the arguments have been made and all the pleading has been exhausted, we must respect and revere the fact that we live in a country where religious freedom and the right to private property must be protected even at the expense of our hurt and anger.