After Obama’s strong statement on Friday in defense of religious freedom and the right of Muslims to build Cordoba House near Ground Zero, I wondered if other Democrats would feel they now had cover to come out in favor of the planned construction as well. After all, up to that point, the “debate” had really been dominated by Republican opponents of the plans (with the prominent exception of Michael Bloomberg). In the immediate wake of Obama’s remarks, a few Democrats did speak up–Adam already noted Jerrold Nadler’s comments and the Center for American Progress released a statement of support for the project over the weekend as well. But there wasn’t exactly a stampede of Democrats to stand up for religious freedom.
And now Harry Reid has chosen the other path, declaring through his spokesman opposition to the building of Cordoba House near Ground Zero. For a brief statement, it’s remarkably muddy: “The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.” So…Senator Reid respects the First Amendment but believes it has its limits? Just for Muslims? What about Hindus, Jews, Mormons? As a member of a religious minority that has a strong tradition of supporting religious freedom for reasons of self-preservation (the Latter-Day Saints), Reid could have made a compelling case for supporting Cordoba House. Instead he made a campaign statement that seems unlikely to disarm GOP attacks against him.
It also may not have been necessary. We don’t have poll numbers out of Nevada on the question, but Nate Silver took a look at national polling about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” and found something that shouldn’t be so surprising. While a Fox News poll found that a majority of respondents didn’t think it appropriate for a mosque to be built near Ground Zero, more than 60% thought that Muslim leaders had the right to do so. That tracks with Pew survey results I wrote about a few weeks ago showing Americans much less willing to ban religious behaviors like the wearing of veils than Europeans are.
Silver compares the issue to asking people whether they support flag-burning and then asking them if there should be a constitutional amendment against flag-burning. It’s not a bad analogy, except that the affirmative case for flag-burning is difficult to make and isn’t a position most people hold, even if they believe it should be protected. There is actually a case to make for supporting the building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero focused on religious tolerance. Here’s Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley last week:
It is a sign of the value we have for freedom in this country, and for religious freedom in particular. We certainly do not want to support groups that promote terrorism, but there are many American citizens who are Muslim, and they have a right to practice their faith. Having a mosque near the site of the attack can be a very important symbol of how much we value religious freedom in this country.
Reid’s “you have the right; you just shouldn’t do it” position is perfectly in line with public opinion on the mosque issue. But it’s public opinion that has been shaped by round-the-clock arguments on Fox News conflating the Muslim backers of Cordoba House with the September 11 attackers, making the building of the center a vital battle in some war between civilizations, and, just this morning, Newt Gingrich comparing Cordoba House planners to Nazis. Harry Reid was in a position to challenge these arguments and help build a new case for the appropriateness of Cordoba House. He chose instead to yield to them.