In this post: Introduction; The First Amendment; Does the Constitution protect the freedom to ‘practise religion’?; Do Americans have the right to ‘worship as they choose’?; My observations thus far; Did President Obama make a principled appeal to the Constitution? And what about the right to freedom of speech?; Understanding the sensitivities over the Park51 proposals; What the President might have said in his Ramadan speech; Conclusion
A debate has been ranging over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, part of a community centre development proposed for 51 Park Place, New York. That’s just two blocks away from where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre once stood.
Tempers are fraying and emotions are at fever pitch.
Now, as an Englishman living on the Isle of Man – a small (but very pretty) rock in the middle of the Irish Sea – you’ll perhaps understand if this controversy has not exactly been front page news for me. I had not therefore been following it at all closely, especially as I have been very busy with work.
But my friend Paula Coyle, who has been active in the online debate, put it on my radar. Then, last week, Chris Rosebrough of Pirate Christian Radio posted his Fighting for the Faith podcast discussing the issue. And yesterday, Jason Coyle (married to Paula) wrote a well considered article taking issue with some of what Chris said.
Having tried to come somewhat up to speed, and having listened to what Chris had to say and read Jason’s response, I have some preliminary thoughts and questions of my own. I might be entirely off base in some of what I say here – perhaps even in everything – but certain aspects of the debate thus far puzzle me.
I am also not sure that I don’t detect some questionable and counter-factual thinking with respect to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
I shall therefore take this opportunity to air my musings in public, with the hope that someone will set me straight and help me better understand the issues.
Before I continue, I should say that this post is something of a departure for me on this blog. I do not usually deal with political issues here. But this debate centres around the freedoms that my US-based brothers and sisters in Christ currently enjoy to proclaim the Gospel without hinderance from the government. That is most certainly within the remit I apply.
Rather than re-state what others have said elsewhere, I shall assume that you are familiar with the following:
- The Park51 project and its proposed facilities.
- Chris Rosebrough’s Fighting for the Faith podcast on the Ground Zero Mosque.
- Jason Coyle’s summary of Chris Rosebrough’s argument.
- Jason’s response to Chris Rosebrough.
The First Amendment
Even a non-American like me manages to pick up a limited knowledge of the US Constitution. And the protections enshrined by the First Amendment are, I think, one of its better known aspects:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I love this language.
I admire America, her people, and the whole US Constitutional project.
Yet I am frequently puzzled at how often US authorities fail to operate within the seemingly straightforward and easily understood parameters of First Amendment. Case in point: Dearborn, Michigan police repeatedly harassing Christians for peaceably preaching the Gospel. Another: the severe restrictions placed upon prayer in public schools.
Still, I am not a Constitutional lawyer, although I note that with regard to school prayer, that several US Supreme Court justices have dissented from the currently prevailing interpretation of the Constitution. It seems to me that there is hope.
Back to the text of the First Amendment.
It does not grant any rights to citizens. Rather, what it does is to protect them from having the rights that they already possess taken away by Congress.
This is important.
Now is a good time to remind ourselves of what President Obama said in his Ramadan speech:
Pay special attention beginning at the 3:09 mark:
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes, that includes the right to build a place of worship, and a community centre, on private property in Lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.
This is America.
And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.
Given what the First Amendment says, it clearly follows that it is not permissible for the government to object to the building of a mosque anywhere in the US, at least where such construction would be in accord with the relevant laws.
Thus, as a matter of the Lefthand Kingdom, President Obama was correct in his intent to defend the right of Muslims to exercise their religion freely, absent interference from government. This right is indeed protected (but not granted) by the US Constitution. But note that, unlike the President, I say exercise, and not practise (sic – I use British spelling, which distinguishes the noun from the verb). I shall return to this point, as it is one upon which the Supreme Court has ruled.
Muslim Americans thus have the right to pursue the building of a mosque on private property in Manhattan without fear of government intervention, provided that they adhere to applicable laws.
However, nowhere does the Constitution protect the right actually to build such a mosque, as the President asserts that it does.
The distinction may be a fine one, but it is critical to the debate, and to the argument that Chris Rosebrough is advancing.
The Declaration of Independence famously states this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration does not say that these are the only unalienable rights with which men are endowed, but it does positively assert that among those rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Now, without becoming sidetracked as to precisely what the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence meant by ‘the pursuit of Happiness’, let us read that broadly and assume that it does include the right for American Muslims to pursue the building of a mosque at Ground Zero. Why should it not?
Is there any credible critic of the Park51 proposals who would deny American Muslims their right to pursue Happiness in any lawful way that they themselves desire?
I suspect not.
Therefore, it would be to construct something of a straw man to predicate an argument upon the assumption that opponents of Park51 somehow wish to deny American Muslims their unalienable rights.
Notice, though, that it is the pursuit of Happiness that is an unalienable right. Whereas Life and Liberty themselves are credited with being unalienable, the language of the Declaration makes an emphatic distinction with regard to Happiness. It is only the pursuit of Happiness that is stated to be a right, not its attainment.
Thus, while hardly anyone would deny that American Muslims have the right to pursue the lawful building of a mosque anywhere they wish, it is a considerable stretch to claim that they have an intrinsic unalienable right actually to accomplish the building of that mosque.
Now, President Obama claims that Muslims do have ‘the right to build a place of worship on private property and a community centre in Lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances’. He does not say that they have the right to ‘pursue the building of’ their mosque, but the right actually ‘to build a place of worship’. But that is a mere assertion, and he provides no evidence with which to substantiate his claim.
Perhaps this seems to be a distinction without meaning?
Then consider this.
If Muslims have a Constitutionally protected right to accomplish the building of a mosque in Lower Manhattan, would not the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government be obligated to ensure the fulfilment of that right, and thus take active steps to ensure that the mosque were built? Given the existence of such a right, might not the government even be obliged to fund the construction of the Park51 community centre and mosque if, for example, American Muslims were unable themselves to find the $100m that the project requires?
Is anyone arguing such a thing?
If not, why do Glenn Beck (as he says in a clip played on Chris’ podcast) and Chris Rosebrough meekly seem to accept President Obama’s assertion that Muslims have a right, not only to pursue the building of their mosque, but actually to build it (provided it does not contravene the relevant laws)? For that is what the phrase ‘right to build a mosque’ implies.
I suppose they mean to say that this right is present, provided that the Muslims are able to raise sufficient funds, purchase their building, satisfy any public enquiries, conform to planning controls, and so forth.
But in that case, the ‘right to build’ is not really all that meaningful, is it?
Language matters. Words have meaning (despite the assertions of some to the contrary). Precision in our statements is important. Especially when the President of the most powerful nation on earth is lecturing on the finer points of her Constitution.
Is it not possible that imprecision in our terminology might lead to imprecision in our thinking? Might this not in turn impair our ability to sustain a credible argument? And could such carelessness not perhaps ultimately lead to Christians losing the battle of ideas that is necessary to safeguard the religious freedoms currently enjoyed by Americans?
I am in all likelihood missing something fundamental with respect to the nature and operation of the Constitution. I am, after all, a mere Englishman pondering complex issues from a distant position of extreme ignorance. Please explain to me where I am going wrong.
But even if the right to build a mosque does exist, is it necessarily a right protected by the Constitution? As I read it, the First Amendment says nothing about protecting the right of religious groups to accomplish their desires. Neither does it seek to defend religious groups from lawful opposition to their goals. Rather, it protects citizens from Congress passing laws that seek to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Thus, lawful and peaceable opposition to the building of a mosque on Park Place is not an infringement upon anyone’s First Amendment rights.
Does the Constitution protect the freedom to ‘practise religion’?
The President attempts to support his claim that the Founders intended to protect the practise of religion (1:10–1:22):
Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practise religion.
In the Virginia Act of Establishing Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion’.
But notice what the President’s quotation from Thomas Jefferson endorses: not the freedom to practise religion, but merely the right to profess and maintain by argument one’s beliefs.
These really aren’t the same thing. Not at all.
I do not say that no evidence exists to support the President’s position; merely that the he did not present it. His researchers and speechwriters have not served him well.
Do Americans have the right to ‘worship as they choose’?
President Obama makes a further claim that ‘Americans have the right to worship as they choose’ (1:38–2:04 in his speech).
Again, that assertion sounds superficially plausible, but fails upon closer examination.
The Constitution does not protect the right of citizens to worship through performing human sacrifice, for example. And the Supreme Court ruled against polygamy in 1878, interpreting the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause as ‘protecting religious beliefs, not religious practices that run counter to neutrally enforced criminal laws’ (as the University of Missouri-Kansas City School summarizes).
Although this position was subsequently softened by later rulings, more recent developments have returned to a narrow interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause. Thus, the University of Missouri-Kansas City School has this to say:
The big development—shocking to some—in Free Exercise jurisprudence came in Employment Division v Smith in 1990. Reinterpreting and, in some cases, throwing out decades of caselaw, five members of the Supreme Court concluded that a generally applicable criminal law raises no Free Exercise issues at all, ending what had long been the obligation of states to demonstrate at least an important state interest and narrow tailoring when they enforced laws that significantly burdened religious practice.
In other words, the Supreme Court in 1878 interpreted the Free Exercise Clause to mean the same thing as the words of Thomas Jefferson that President Obama quoted, and recent courts have returned to that same narrow understanding.
The Supreme Court understands the First Amendment not as protecting the practise of religion, but rather the right of people to hold, profess and, by public argument, to maintain their beliefs.
Thus, the President is speaking contrary to the opinions of the Supreme Court when he appeals to the First Amendment in support of either a right to ‘practise religion’ or for people to ‘worship as they choose’. He presents no evidence that such rights are Constitutionally protected.
Again, it would seem that the President has been ill-served by his advisors.
If I understand him correctly, Chris Rosebrough is vigorously defending what he believes to be a Constitutionally protected right to the free practise of religion. Yet, given the rulings of the Supreme Court concerning the Free Exercise Clause, I wonder whether that point of Constitutional principle has not in fact already been long conceded, if indeed it ever existed.
Simply, then, I do not currently understand the Constitutional basis upon which Chris is arguing.
We do not have to like the Constitutional situation as interpreted by both past and recent Supreme Courts (although a narrow interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause does not seem to me to be incompatible with the precise wording of the text). Americans are free to disagree with their Supreme Court, and to pursue a change of interpretation. But they are unlikely to act with meaningful effect unless they first understand the relevant facts for what they are.
Now, whatever restrictions may eventually be imposed upon the practise of Christianity by an increasingly secularized society, no Supreme Court has yet denied that the First Amendment protects the freedom to profess and argue for one’s religious opinions. Thus, the Constitution does seem to guarantee the unimpeded proclamation of Law and Gospel, even in the face of opposition from those who find the message of Christ crucified for sinners to be offensive.
For this we should rejoice and thank the Lord. For our desire is not merely to uphold the Lefthand Kingdom rights of Christians, but to pursue the Righthand proclamation of the Gospel to the lost, in the hope that the Lord might thereby graciously save some.
My observations thus far
In summary, then, my (probably wrong-headed) understanding of the First Amendment is that it protects religious freedom by prohibiting Congress from passing laws intended to impede the free exercise of religion. Nevertheless, religious practice may be constrained by neutrally enforced criminal law.
Further, I assert that the prohibiting of Congress from passing laws restricting the free exercise of religion is emphatically not the same thing as granting citizens the right to build a mosque, even on their own private property.
I make these observations because much of the discussion I have seen and heard seems to assume that the First Amendment either grants citizens positive rights, or protects freedoms far more extensive than either its plain text or the prevailing rulings of the Supreme Court would suggest.
My general point is thus that, if we are to discuss the Constitutional issues intelligently and prevail in the marketplace of ideas, we need to be very careful of our facts and not misconstrue the freedoms that the Constitution actually protects.
Let me state once more that I am not a Constitutional lawyer. I am well aware that I will already have erred on many points thus far in my discussion, and that my status as one ignorant of US Constitutional law will be patently obvious to anyone who is trained in such matters. Again, please correct me and set the record straight. I am not seeking to be contentious, but merely to establish and comprehend the facts of the Constitutional situation.
Did President Obama make a principled appeal to the Constitution? And what about the right to freedom of speech?
Although Chris Rosebrough correctly points out that President Obama appeals to the Constitution, given the above observations, I rather suspect that Chris is being overly generous when he credits the President with a Constitutionally defensible stance.
As I currently see things (and I am well prepared to change my view, if and when someone shows me my error), the President apparently asserts that the Constitution protects rights that it does not. And he notably fails to balance the right to be free from government interference in the expression of religion with another right also protected by the First Amendment: freedom of speech.
As much as Chris valiantly defends the rights of those seeking to build the mosque, might he not, like the President, perhaps be tending toward inconsistency when he neglects to defend with equal vigour the Constitutional right of those who oppose the mosque to voice their opinions?
It is not a de facto unconstitutional stance to speak one’s strong opposition to the way that someone else wishes lawfully to exercise their religion.
In fact, the opposite would seem to be true: to maintain the freedom to preach the Gospel, it is precisely the right to speak openly in opposition to other religions (including the religion of secular humanism) that must be protected. And that right must be protected every bit as much as the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom from ‘laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’.
Rights are best maintained by regular use. I do not therefore understand the logic behind the criticisms Chris makes of those who are voicing opposition to the Park51 mosque. They would merely seem to be exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
Now, if Chris had confined his criticism to those calling for government intervention to prevent the mosque being built, then he would have a point, and I would agree with it entirely.
Any such calls, if they are being made, would be unconstitutional and would represent a real danger to religious freedom in the US.
And I likewise support him in his caution against playing into the hands of those with anti-religious agendas by the use of extreme and intemperate language. Every believer involved in the debate should take his warnings to heart and tone down the rhetoric. Let us be gracious to those with whom we disagree, even if they are unrestrained in their arguments against us.
But I part company with Chris to the extent that he intends to go further than that by criticizing those who simply argue passionately that the mosque should not be built, but who are neither calling for government intervention nor seeking to prevent its construction by anything other than peaceable and lawful means. They have a Constitutionally protected right to voice their opinions, and it is essential to the preservation of religious freedom that they are vigorously supported in exercising that right, whether or not one agrees with every (or indeed any) aspect of their argument.
Understanding the sensitivities over the Park51 proposals
The Park51 website makes plain that a mosque is part of the proposals. This is not a matter of dispute. The website says:
Park51 will grow into a world-class community center, planned to include the following facilities:
- outstanding recreation spaces and fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
- a 500-seat auditorium
- a restaurant and culinary school
- cultural amenities including exhibitions
- education programs
- a library, reading room and art studios
- childcare services
- a mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
- a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all
Now, the Park51 website also goes out of its way to present its proposals as inclusive, being ‘in the spirit of tolerance and service’ and a ‘gesture of dedication to our city’. For the sake of my following points, I shall assume the veracity of these claims without question.
The President was absolutely right to say that all must ‘recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan’.
Although some might question whether President Obama was correct in stating that the 9/11 terrorist’s cause was ‘not Islam, it’s a gross distortion of Islam’, it is clear that he singularly failed to address meaningfully in his remarks the fact that those terrorists were most certainly at least operating in the name of Islam, and that not a few in the Muslim world saw them as doing so legitimately.
(For the record, let me be absolutely clear that I recognize that there are also many people who would self-identify as Muslim and yet condemn all terrorist acts without reservation. I in no way wish to impugn the motives or behaviour of peaceful law-abiding Muslims, US citizens or otherwise.)
The President rather failed, I think, to show adequately in his Ramadan speech that he understood the legitimate feelings of many New Yorkers and other Americans concerning this issue. On 9/11, America was attacked in the name of Islam. Now here was their President, defending the building of a mosque practically upon the primary place of that attack. Would it not be understandable if many were to feel betrayed by his words, even if the President himself intended no such offence?
Yet President Obama went even further, proclaiming that American Muslims have a right actually to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan. I have already stated my case for questioning whether such a right exists or, if it does, whether it is protected by the Constitution.
Thus, although President Obama asserted that we must ‘recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan’, he gave the impression to many of neglecting to heed his own advice.
It must be blatantly obvious to even the most neophyte politician that not a few New Yorkers would perceive the building of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero as, if not a victory of sorts for the ideology of the terrorists, then at least something that those sympathetic to the 9/11 attackers would claim as such, and thus use in their continuing propaganda and efforts to raise funds for further terrorist attacks.
Is it not therefore entirely understandable that emotions are running high? How galling it must be for some, not only to have to endure Osama bin Laden’s continuing evasion of justice, but now also apparently to see his professed cause gain ground with their own President’s apparent blessing. And not just any ground, but Ground Zero.
Sentiments are fraught, therefore, not over the proposed building of just any mosque, but over the plans for this particular mosque in a location that has acquired an extreme symbolic importance to the identity of the American people and their stand against terror.
To concede this ground – if not to the enemy, then at least to the religion in whose name an atrocity has so recently been committed upon it – appears to many to be a capitulation to terror. In their view, this would add insult to the terrible injury that the American people have suffered. The very idea is itself a stench in their nostrils, and ample cause for the intensity of the current debate.
One does not have to agree with that view in order to grant that it has a legitimate basis, and that those holding it should be treated gently and with respect.
I do not therefore fault President Obama for not viewing the matter this way himself.
But, by failing to recognize that this is an emotionally sensitive issue of honour, symbolism and principle for many patriotic Americans, and instead treating it as an abstract constitutional matter in his speech, the President is at least guilty of incompetent politics.
Though that is not in itself a crime, I cannot comprehend how President Obama made such a basic error. That said, reviewing again Chris Rosebrough’s analysis, I am not sure that he does not similarly fail to give sufficient weight to the idea that those opposed to the construction of the mosque might have a genuine and potentially legitimate grievance. Perhaps I am missing something.
What the President might have said in his Ramadan speech
I wonder why, in defending the protections afforded by the Constitution, President Obama did not endeavour to unite US citizens together around those very freedoms? Could he not easily have spoken along the following lines, even allowing for the fact he was addressing an iftar dinner:
Our Constitution – which I am bound by oath to preserve, protect and defend – enshrines the freedom of our citizens to exercise their religion without interference from government. That freedom includes the right of Muslims to seek to build places of worship – even in Lower Manhattan.
We treasure these First Amendment freedoms, even as others fear them and seek to take them from us. Unable to win in the arena of peaceful discussion and debate, the enemies of freedom resort to shameful acts of terror. By their deeds, they show the impotence of their ideas, in contradistinction to the preeminence of our liberty.
It is our Constitutional freedoms that define America and make her great. We determinedly hold them fast, whatever trials and tribulations we may endure. The noble ideas upon which this nation is founded can never be defeated by base acts of barbarism.
Nonetheless, the same First Amendment that safeguards our free exercise of religion also protects our freedom of speech. These rights are inseparable. Neither one can stand alone. And so we hold the right to speak freely as dearly as we do our free exercise of religion.
There are many who think it inappropriate that a mosque should be built so close to the place where terrorists committed an atrocity in the name of Islam. They have a right to give voice to their thoughts and feelings. And were a mosque to be built close to Ground Zero, there would no doubt be some among the enemies of freedom who would perceive this to be a sign of our weakness.
They would be wrong.
The building of a mosque close to Ground Zero would be proof not of our vulnerability, but of our steadfast resolve to uphold with eternal vigilance the freedoms of all our citizens, whatever their colour or creed.
Thus, even as we honour the right of Muslim Americans to seek to build a community centre and mosque in Park Place, we also uphold the right of other citizens to speak peaceably in opposition to its construction.
Park51 is therefore a matter for civil discourse, but not for government diktat. This is the American way. And so, even as loyal and patriotic American citizens legitimately disagree over this issue, let us celebrate the Constitutional freedoms that unite us in our noble land of liberty.
I am no speech writer, but could President Obama not at least have acknowledged the First Amendment right of freedom of speech for those who feel so very strongly that the Park51 mosque should not be constructed?
President Obama could have used his speech to prepare the way such that, whether or not the mosque is eventually built, Americans could have stood together, united by their Constitution and proud of their freedoms – the very freedoms that enable the Gospel to be proclaimed without government restriction.
Instead, the President’s words stirred up the controversy and sowed seeds of discord. His Ramadan speech left America more divided, not less.
Am I way off base with anything I have written here? Have I woefully misinterpreted the nature of the Constitution or the First Amendment? Have I misunderstood the motivations of those opposing the Park51 project? Have I been unfair to Chris, or even to President Obama?
If so, I’d appreciate some guidance to bring me back on track, even if it’s just a link to a primer on Constitutional law! And if this whole article is without merit, I am happy simply to withdraw it.
I believe that Chris is probably correct with respect to the hidden agendas held by some engaged in the public debate. It is beyond credible doubt that there are those who are exploiting this situation for their own political or secularist ends.
But it would be overly simplistic to paint everyone involved in the discussion with that particular brush: there are legitimate reasons driving some to oppose Park51, and I believe that Americans would be wise to defend through exercise their First Amendment right to speak freely.
I am therefore unconvinced that opposing the construction of the mosque is in itself to place the religious freedoms of American citizens in jeopardy. I do not see the Constitutional basis for that line of reasoning, although I remain open to persuasion.
That said, any public discourse by Christians should always be conducted in a way that is blameless. It would be all too easy to give ammunition to those with a secularist agenda who wish to excise religion entirely from the public sphere.
Chris is absolutely correct to identify this danger, and to seek to mitigate it.
I thank God for giving the church faithful and insightful men such as he. May the Lord grant that every believer’s conduct be likewise ‘worthy of the gospel of Christ’ (Phil. 1:27). For it is our freedom to proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead that Chris, Jason and many others seek to defend.
My fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, I commend your efforts to contend both for the Gospel and for your continued freedom to proclaim it. I leave you with these words of counsel and encouragement from Paul to Titus:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.
19 thoughts on “An Englishman’s musings on the Ground Zero Mosque, and what President Obama might have said in his Ramadan speech”
The privileges of being classed as religion should be withdrawn from Islam.
If Hitler had claimed that ‘Mein Kampf’ was dictated by God, would we be forced to tolerate the Nazi Party as a religion? Islam is first and foremost a mind-destroying, totalitarian political ideology that spreads through the Body Politic like a virus.
Winston Churchill gave the correct diagnosis over a century ago, when he compared Islam to a contagious virus or meme – ‘as dangerous in a man as rabies in a dog’ http://crombouke.blogspot.com/2010/01/islam-murder-meme-and-rabies-of.html
Consequently, Islam should be reclassified from ‘RELIGION’ to ‘PUBLIC MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEM’ – a virulent contagious mental illness. It could then be contained by the methods used to prevent the spread of typhoid and other lethal epidemics: enforced exclusion and quarantine of carriers, eradication of foci of infection, immunization of the susceptible population etc.
Trencherbone, thank you for visiting.
I think the problem with this approach is in what happens when someone decides that Biblical Christianity is a ‘public mental health problem’? There are many who already think that way.
Thus, in a constitutional republic such as the US, the only way to maintain one’s own freedoms is vigorously to defend those of others.
Following President Obama’s Ramadan speech, our Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, called for an investigation of those opposed to the Park51 project. It certainly doesn’t lend any confidence that the right to free speech is given as much weight as the rights of adherents to a religion that caused such terrible harm to this country.
Great point, Gayle. I found her call to be particularly chilling.
Daniel, some excellent observations!
you said “If Muslims have a Constitutionally protected right to accomplish the building of a mosque in Lower Manhattan, would not the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government be obligated to ensure the fulfilment of that right, and thus take active steps to ensure that the mosque were built? Given the existence of such a right, might not the government even be obliged to fund the construction of the Park51 community centre and mosque if, for example, American Muslims were unable themselves to find the $100m that the project requires? Is anyone arguing such a thing?”
Actually, no one is arguing for such a thing but such a thing IS being done. The State department (Federal tax dollars at work) is sending Faisal on a publicly funded trip to. uh…. build relationships
“It is unacceptable that U.S. taxpayers are being forced to fund Feisal Abdul Rauf’s trip to the Middle East,” the lawmakers wrote. “Abdul Rauf has cast blame for 9/11 on the U.S., and even refuses to call Hamas what it is –- a Foreign Terrorist Organization. This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas. The U.S. should be using public diplomacy programs to combat extremism, not endorse it. The State Department’s selection of Feisal Abdul Rauf to represent the American people through this program further calls into question the Administration’s policy and funding priorities.”
In light of this, we have to question the administration’s real agenda here. It is not to protect the 1st amendment, but to hold up a smokescreen of protecting it while cutting it off at the knees. The only reason why you would help this guy out is if you really DID have the goal of making Islam, and even the most radical form of it, which Feisal/Faisal seems to be ok with, more prevalent in the US. He himself may not be a terrorist, but he sympathizes with them and seems anxious to apologize for him. Someone like this should not get any help or support, and definitely NOT from our state or federal governments.
“Imam Faisal will be traveling to Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE on a U.S. government-sponsored trip to the Middle East,” Crowley said. “He will discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance. … We have about 1,200 of these kinds of programs every year, of sending experts in all fields overseas. Last year we had 52 trips that were specifically focused on religious — promoting religious tolerance. We will expect to have roughly the same number of programs this year.”
Are they going to have a minder follow him around that speaks Arabic and English and whatever other language he decides to conduct this business in? My suspicions are no, because that would violate some fictional (in this context) right to privacy or freedom of speech. I am guessing he will be discussing ways to build Muslim-US relations just like peace and tolerance is taught at the Green Lane mosque in Birmingham.
Neither does it seek to defend religious groups from lawful opposition to their goals. Rather, it protects citizens from Congress passing laws that seek to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
An excellent distinction.
You bring up the valid restrictions on practicing however US citizens choose to practice their particular religion. A commenter here also suggests “Islam should be reclassified from ‘RELIGION’ to ‘PUBLIC MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEM’ – a virulent contagious mental illness. ”
“I think the problem with this approach is in what happens when someone decides that Biblical Christianity is a ‘public mental health problem’? There are many who already think that way.”
Now let me quote the New York constitution of 1777:
“Provided, That the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State.”
As written that could also be used to persecute Christians in the same way — they could be deemed ‘inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State.” Yet it’s been there since 1777. At some point we will have to trust the common sense of law abiding (not silly law abiding mind you) people to do what is right. Law abiding people are being forced to endure lots of ridiculous restrictions in the name of safety, including giving up their right to own or carry a firearm, their right to oppose virulent ideas and the right to deny hateful people a foothold in their town.
I know it’s not that easy a thing to discern for any of us. So the rather inflamed rhetoric Chris himself was using, the repetition, and the tone of his voice, even when he put the gospel back into the podcast (which was missing before) was, as he said ” the rhetoric regarding this issue has gotten to this point and is this far out of control, considering the facts ”
Eventually when the ideas espoused by both groups come to complete fruition the discernment issues (i.e. who the real enemy is) will become much clearer. Unfortunately I believe too much damage will have been done already and many more lives will be lost. Islam and its warlike mindset has been around for about 1400 years. I sometimes wonder if it is the Red Horseman of the Apocalypse. Perhaps the warlike mindset was around forever, but Mohammed served to unite the entire land under a monotheistic god of wrath who offers forgiveness only on condition of your own level of obedience. (completely irrational – if you could obey enough to be forgiven you would not need forgiveness). Proof that sometimes getting CLOSER to the truth of Scripture (i.e. going from pagan idolatry and polytheism to a monotheistic mindset with only some judeo Christian guidelines for morality) can make a group MORE dangerous.
You said And I likewise support him in his caution against playing into the hands of those with anti-religious agendas by the use of extreme and intemperate language.
I am pretty sure you agree with this clarification: I would caution against playing into the hands of anyone with an anti religious (or anti Christian) agenda, no matter how they use language. In fact the less extreme and intemperate they are, the more deceptive they can be to the general public. President Obama’s speech is a prime example. It seems reasonable. I am thankful that he spent some time explaining Islamist extremism however. I just don’t know that I will trust him or his reasoning to actually do anything to stop it. He is duplicitous like most of them.
Something I said to some friends yesterday as we were commenting on the “Dispatches” episodes exposing the Green Lane Mosque.
(he’s definitely smooth and knows how to spin things!)
If a non muslim was going around threatening people, we’d convict him of some degree of assault. If people are deemed a danger to society we keep them confined. We commit people for insanity although it is still very hard. But all you have to do is put activists in place with an agenda and that will change.
We don’t argue about how those very common sensical things can be used against Christians. All they need to do is deem us a danger to society, trump up some charges of child abuse or whatever they want. The laws are written so that if you run afoul of anyone powerful enough, they can probably find something you did wrong and you are very likely to have a miserable life defending yourself against lawsuits.
What I see Chris doing is vainly struggling against the encroaching fulfillment of prophecy. If your bunker is being overrun, it doesn’t matter which enemy you shoot (spiritually speaking) there will be another to take its place. If you shoot at the guys on your right flank you by definition will be NOT shooting at the guys flanking you on the left. You just make a decision and go for it and hold them off as long as you can. It’s a battle, it is not fair, the end is inevitable. In war, many times men have fought most valiantly because they knew they had nothing to lose. They knew they were going to die. But even though they knew that they would none of them survive and the battle would be lost, in a larger war, it is not purposeless in that we cause them to use up valuable resources them and also cause THEM to focus in one direction while not paying attention to what is coming for THEM… i.e. God’s judgement. They are so focused on fighting the perceived threat i.e. “us” — they don’t even notice that they are sealing God’s judgement against them. It doesn’t feel like much of a victory, but we already know how it ends.
Hi Paula: good points, very well made.
And I likewise support him in his caution against playing into the hands of those with anti-religious agendas by the use of extreme and intemperate language.
And you asked:
I am pretty sure you agree with this clarification: I would caution against playing into the hands of anyone with an anti religious (or anti Christian) agenda, no matter how they use language. In fact the less extreme and intemperate they are, the more deceptive they can be to the general public.
I’d certainly support your caution there, yes. My point was that we (by which I really meant Christians defending Constitutional freedoms) should be careful in our language not to give ammunition to our opponents. But what you said is equally true: even if the opposition seems moderate and reasonable, that doesn’t mean that their intentions are necessarily honourable. Wise discernment is required:
Excellent point re: whether free exercise includes practices or only beliefs. It’s a narrower understanding than what I’ve been using in my comments to Chris thus far.
I’ll have to think more on this when I have time. Perhaps I’ll end up studying Constitutional law after all. To this point, I’ve resisted it as the first step down the road to a political career…
Who’s to say a political career might not be a good idea? It would be great to have more men of real integrity in the political arena.
Funny, I did have that same hought about you, Daniel…how you would make a great lawyer, as you are well versed and able to parse out the minutaie!
I also commented on the fb thread, pasted below in its entirety:
Thank you for the post, Daniel. You brought clarity to some otherwise “lost” details as pertaining to language and how it matters, from how it is written, how it is delivered from the lectern to how it lands on the listeners’ ears.
It’s always refreshing to hear an “outsider’s” view on heated American socio-political issues. No doubt this one is rife with fine, sharp edges and it cuts at the heart of many, many Americans, including mine. It has caused me to have to puzzle out feelings from realities and legal freedoms from faith.
It’s a difficult hour for this nation, nobody half awake would argue that.
But could it be that God in His Sovereignty has opened the door to this perfect storm for Christians to give pause and consider–to separate out constitutional law from gospel, to distinguish legal freedoms from spiritual freedoms? As I tell my children, they can come to my door and burn my Bible, but they cannot rip it from my heart and mind.
It’s a sobering time, a time that we as Christians understand more fully what Jesus meant when He spoke on counting the cost of being a disciple.
Elizabeth, thank you.
I think your point about God using these things in His Sovereignty is pertinent. Here’s something I wrote on Saturday in an email on a completely different topic:
‘It sometimes seems as if we are running around, hacking at random thistles here and there, wondering why we have so little effect. We can become discouraged, being sinfully weak and thus inclined to forget that the Owner of the field has told us plainly that He is allowing the tares to grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. He does this not because He has no concern for the wheat, but because He loves it.
The Church is the Lord’s. He is building it. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
And so, when we remember the Gospel, we do not despair, but look for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
And we pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest.’
Now, I was really referring to problems within the visible church, but your point about God’s being in control of every situation is the same one that undergirded what I wrote there. The Lord does use these things to bring about His sovereign purposes, and it is entirely possible that He wishes to discipline and train His Church through the present situation. If so, may we learn the lesson quickly, and may we learn it well, so that in all things we may resound to the praise of His glory.
Daniel, I was going to send you and email telling you what an excellent article this was, but as I saw these comments here, I decided to go ahead and do it here. Yes, I am an American and probably older than the rest of the CRN team by quite a bit. I was born in 1951 and remember very well when we had to live in terror of the Soviet Union’s Aggression with Nuclear weapons and global aspirations, etc. I remember when there was and East Germany and West Germany for instance.
God saved me in 1986 when my children were small. They grew up going to church. I grew in maturity during that time. The Christian I am now is far more mature than the Christian I was back then. Even through 1990’s into the early 2000’s I was still very much involved in the marriage of Conservative Politics in the USA and the Religious Right. Again, God changed all that in 2004. He took me through a total retool of focus that year. This Christianity really is all about Him. We are His. It really is not about us, but Him. It was then that I lost all interest in the political agenda. Yes, I vote. Yes, I vote for those who not outright hostile to Christian values, but I know the real power is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What about our “rights” and such? Well, I was in the blast zone and am a survivor of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. I was just a block away and the building I was in was heavily damaged. I was deeply emotionally traumatized by that for many years yet did not recognize it until my 2004 revival. In any case, I had to let go of the hatred, the need for revenge. I had to forgive or go crazy. I would have loved to have been right there to stop the man from setting off the bomb, but I wasn’t so the best I can do is seek God for healing and ask Him to forgive and heal the rest of those emotionally scarred people out there.
I recognize the same rage in those in NY. Yes, those behind it were Muslims instead of right-wing terrorists, but the result was the same. It did not accomplish what they wanted because it never does. Terrorism is stupid. All it does is tear things up and kill and hurt people. That’s all. Should we stop muslims from building that mosque? Well, if it was up to me I would let them do it, but I think you had better watch out because there will be someone seeking to blow it up with all the muslims inside… See what I mean?
Constitutionally, I think they have the right to practice their religion, but that also means they do not have the right to stop me from practicing mine. That is what will happen though if Sharia Law takes over and that will be next. I know no one is think that far ahead.
Sorry to ramble. Great article brother!!!
Thank you for wading through my article. But most especially, for recounting your moving personal experience and perspective on the situation. I had no idea of your background here.
There’s a lot to think about in what you say. I’ll pick out one thing: ‘I know the real power is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Whatever may come, that certainty – that the real power resides with the one who loves us and gave His life for us – is our continuing comfort and consolation.
Thank you again!
First the caveat; I know even less about the American constitution than the author. Further, this is just an initial, off-the-cuff, thought so make of it what you will.
There are many interesting and thoughtful comments about the amendments: I would only suggest that when trying to interpret any law it is helpful to examine the perceived ill it was supposed to correct. In the case of freedom of religious belief ( and possibly practice) I imagine this was a reaction against the persecution of so-called ‘dissenters’ in the ‘old country’ and the Acts of Uniformity which established the position of the Church of England as the State Religion in England. It was in such a climate that the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America, to a land where they might worship as they pleased. Thus their descendants would be most careful to maintain this freedom under the constitution. However, religious freedom for the legislators would have meant freedom to practise the Christian faith according to their consciences. The notion of Islam or any other faith (except possibly Judaism) being included under the constitution would, I would guess, not have occurred to them as followers of such beliefs would be ‘heathen’. So, the outlawing of child-sacrifice or polygamy would be perfectly compatible with the Constitution as they understood it.
The Constitution now has to be interpreted in the context of present-day society and this must be a matter of some negotiation, probably by way of various appeals to the courts.
Whenever I am led to think of competing religions (rather than denominations) in society, I recall the story of Gideon who tore down the altars of Baal. Why do we not do the same? Perhaps because such actions are now proscribed by law but also because we perceive that adherents of other religions might do the same to us, either at home or abroad. This leads me back to the original matter as it is clearly thought by some that an attack has been made upon them by another religion. How should a Christian respond? How do we ‘turn the other cheek? How do we love our enemies? Is this a ‘left kingdom’ ‘right kingdom’ matter and where do professing Christians fit in this debate? As a self-confessed ignoramus, I shall follow the discussion with great interest.
Thank you for your interesting observation – we can pool our ignorance together, and perhaps someone may take pity upon us 🙂
You obviously have more than a passing sympathy with the doctrine of Original Intent. You might therefore find the following interesting:
Original Intent and the Free Exercise of Religion
As for Gideon, one big difference between his situation and the US is that he lived in Ophrah, a City in Benjamin, and therefore part of National Israel. Israel had been established by God and given laws from Him both directly and through Moses. Her people had willingly committed themselves to keep them (Ex. 19:8; 24:3). Those laws made every person responsible for taking action against those who would seek to lead anyone away from the true God (e.g. Lev. 20:27, Deut. 13, etc.). Thus, Gideon was acting lawfully within, as it were, the constitution of National Israel and the laws that they had willingly adopted.
Although all nations have in some sense been established by God, the Mosaic Law was given specifically to and for National Israel in a way that it has not been given to other nations. And the American people have never committed themselves collectively to worship the God who reveals Himself in Scripture and Him alone, nor to obey all His laws. Thus, it would be illegitimate to apply Biblical statutes intended for National Israel in a blanket way to the people of the US, especially without the consent of those governed.
And, as you say, it would in any case be illegitimate to act contrary to the mandate of the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1–7) who are fulfilling their God-given remit to praise righteousness and be a terror to evil (Rom. 13:3).
Now, with regard to turning the other cheek, I think you would have to make the case from Scripture that this applies to governing authorities and not merely to our personal relations with one another. The passage that I have already cited from Romans establishes that governing authorities are appointed by God (v. 1), and are ‘God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil’ (v. 4). They therefore have a remit to protect the weak and vulnerable from those who would cause them harm, not to turn the other cheek and stand idly by while evil men commit their wicked acts. Legitimate authorities fulfil their God-given mandate to punish evil and praise righteousness.
But hey, if you are a self-confessed ignoramous, I am even more of one 🙂
Anyway, great to have your thoughts here, thank you!
(By the way, there’s been a fair bit of debate about these issues over on Chris Rosebrough’s Facebook wall.)
Dan, I should know that whatever I think someone has had that thought long ago! I was drawing on the way our appeal courts examine cases referred to them. In recent years laws have been passed in the UK in response to some ‘moral panic’, whether it be dangerous dogs or something else that the tabloid press are pursuing. The principle is basically sound and helps to remove from the debate many current issues and enable us to ‘see the wood for the trees’.
I heartily agree 🙂
I am probably a little late to the discussion, but I really enjoyed what you wrote. Great commentary and insight. The distinction you make between having a right to build versus the right to pursue building is absolutely valid and speaks to a much larger point, as I think you have aptly explained in your article.
To cut to the chase, this distinction noted above is borne out daily in communities throughout the US (and I would guess in communities in the UK, as well). By that I mean local communities (through their zoning boards and city councils) ultimately arbitrate one’s right to build a particular project in a particular location. When a builder is successful in working through the layers of local review and scrutiny, their project is ‘permitted’, meaning that he or she now has a ‘permit’ to build their project in accordance with whatever requirements and qualifications emerged from the local government’s plan review process. This ‘permit’ attests to the builder’s right to build his or her project at the location specified in accordance with the approved building plans. If, during the course of construction, local governmental inspectors find any variance from the approved plans, the builder is usually forced back into compliance via the threat of fine or other punishment. Thus one’s “right” to build is typically normed by local preferences, standards and dictates.
This regulatory oversight on the part of local communities’ governing bodies is not necessarily arbitrary or capricious (though in our fallen condition, we all know or have read about circumstances involving abuse and downright illegal or immoral actions on the parts of the individuals involved). When it comes to developing land, for example, local governments often seek public comment and input into how a particular section of land will be zoned for ultimate use. In a number of cases, the public may have the opportunity to speak in support of or in opposition to a particular building project. Throughout our history, both federal and state courts have ruled and opined regarding the validity of local decisionmaking in this respect as well as the power to regulate land use development. Having been involved throughout my career in a number of public and private building projects in Texas, I can tell you that an absolute right to build what you want where you want it does not exist (except maybe Houston, but that’s another matter entirely!). Of course, as noted above, I am not naive when it comes to the ability of humankind to work evil into a human-devised system intended to work good. Decisionmakers and, ultimately, decisions can be and many times are influenced by those wielding the most influence, if you know what I mean. But for the most part, the authority to regulate land use and building in our communities has served the greater public well throughout our history. I think the point could be made that this form of local governance, if exercised judiciously and equitably, is God’s way of preserving and protecting His creation through the Left Hand Kingdom.
Now, I am not so dumb as to say that this mosque debate boils down to just a matter of local building control, although we did witness how the process works thanks to all the media attention this matter has garnered. Ultimately, the approval to build the project was a decision that a local board was authorized to make after hearing public debate and input, and as we clearly have seen, some New Yorkers agree with the decision but many do not.
Like many other Americans, I am incensed at the thought that such a shrine could be built in this particular location. I hope and pray that the outcome will be that no such project ever gets underway (in the end, Chris R. may be right insofar as funding may never materialize to make it a reality). I guess we’ll just wait and see.
But the essence of your article is so important for all Americans, both Christian and nonChristian alike, to understand. Words have meaning, especially words spoken by individuals whose weight and influence in the arena of public debate and discourse is beyond that of ordinary citizens. We all need to be clear in our understanding of our history and what our governing documents in fact say. We need to be truthful in our discourse, respectful toward those with whom we disagree, and firm in our convictions. As Christians, we need to be clear about what we believe and why we believe it, with God’s Holy Word as our ultimate and final authority.
In the final analysis, I think you are especially calling for Christians to exercise clarity and precision in what we understand and communicate, if we are going to have a meaningful role in the debate. If that is not correct, then please forgive my presumption. At any rate, I am glad Chris posted your rebuttal on PCR and I found your website.
Hello Bill, thank you for visiting and leaving your remarkably well articulated comments. Having a clear and expert overview of the the local planning process is especially helpful to me as an outsider, but also I suspect to others who have had little direct experience of these matters themselves.
And yes, I think you have captured the essence of what I was trying to say very well. We should ‘exercise clarity and precision in what we understand and communicate’ if we wish to make progress in the debate that is occurring in the left-hand kingdom. And it is proper that we be principled, respectful and firm as we engage in that debate.
Ultimately, though, I am with Chris in believing that, when it comes to the right-hand kingdom, Christ shall build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it – not even in the guise of Islam. As I have written elsewhere, I am convinced of the power of the Gospel. Only by the proclamation of that message can Islam itself be defeated. And thus, we also seek to exercise clarity and precision in the way that we understand and articulate the good news of Christ crucified for our sins and raised from the dead. I believe Chris to be an exceptional example in this endeavour, and I am very grateful for his work.
Peace and grace.
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