It’s Not Just About Ground Zero

On August 8, the New York Times ran an article about growing opposition to mosques around the country, an opposition neatly summarized by a sign held by one protester: “Mosques are monuments to terrorism.” The sign is from a protest in Temecula, California, which is over 2700 miles from the World Trade Center site.

Protests have also greeted another proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and it became something of an issue in the recent Republican gubernatorial primary. While campaigning, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (who lost the primary) said: “Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or it is a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it.” One of the opponents of the California mosque parrots that line in the Times article: “I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.” A Gainesville, Florida church has planned a Qur’an burning for the ninth anniversary of September 11.

This is what people do when the principle of freedom of religion gets in the way of their fears and prejudices: they deny that it is about religion, and they make it political. This is what anti-Catholic bigots like the Know-Nothings did in the 19th century. Since the structure of the Catholic Church was monarchial, with a king-like pope and nobility in the form of cardinals and bishops, it was obvious to them that Catholicism was inherently anti-democratic and thus anti-American.

The current anti-Muslim hysteria has now found its purest, clearest expression in the now-notorious words of American Family Association radio host Bryan Fischer: “Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.” (Fischer also said, after the Fort Hood shooting, that no Muslims should be allowed in the U.S. military.)

As despicable as his words are, it is instructive to have the hatred and bigotry stated so forthrightly. There is no hiding here behind the idea of opposition to a specific site such as Ground Zero, or the need to be sensitive to the raw emotions of 9/11 families. Here is the underlying, perverted “logic” revealed in all its horrific glory.

Like the woman in California, Fischer pretends to honor the principle while abandoning it: “Because of this subversive ideology, Muslims cannot claim religious freedom protections under the First Amendment.” As Newt Gingrich did, he asserts that Americans should show their superiority by descending to the level of their enemies: “There is no such thing as freedom of religion in Islam, and it is sheer folly for Americans to delude themselves into thinking otherwise.” (By this standard, the United States should have established gulags for political dissidents during the cold war.)

Fischer makes it clear that what he really wants is for Muslims to renounce Islam: “If a mosque was willing to publicly renounce the Koran and its 109 verses that call for the death of infidels, renounce Allah and his messenger Mohammed, publicly condemn [terrorism and terrorist groups] then maybe they could be allowed to build their buildings. But then they wouldn’t be Muslims at that point, would they?” Note that Fischer departs from the usual demand that Muslims renounce terrorism—he insists that they must also “renounce Allah and his messenger Mohammed” and, one supposes, become Christians. (Recall Ann Coulter’s response to 9/11: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”) The reason is clear: in his twisted mind, Islam and terrorism are inseparable.

This inability to separate the religious from the political is no real surprise. Modern American conservatism, at least since the rise of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” in the late 1970s, has had this fusion of the sacred and secular at its base, and this is the consequence. Once you accept the historically flawed idea that “American” equals “Christian,” you of necessity must see “Muslim” as “anti-American.” Muslims do not accept the fundamental belief of Christianity, that Jesus was the Son of God and savior of the world. Thus, in this closed world view, they are “anti-Christian” and so are also inherently “anti-American.”

This is one of the dangers of the increasingly prominent idea that the United States is a “Christian nation.” The most recent manifestation, Vacation Liberty School (modeled on Vacation Bible School), seeks to indoctrinate children with the idea that “on the Fourth of July, the Founders simply took the precepts of Christ which came into the world through his His birth (Christmas) and incorporated those principles into civil government.”

The curriculum of Vacation Liberty School is a veritable repository of “Christian nation” memes that have proliferated on the internet. The political content of the curriculum is not hard to find. It states explicitly that the Constitution is based on “Judeo-Christian truths.” It teaches that the Jamestown colony failed because it practiced “secular communism,” and that the Plymouth colony also failed because it mistakenly thought that merely “interjecting Christianity into the communist model” would help it avoid Jamestown’s failings. Plymouth only succeeded by “giving each family private property.”

One of its exercises is a recreation of a 1746 incident when a French fleet threatened Boston. A teacher playing Thomas Prince leads the students in prayer and “call[s] upon God to bring a storm and wipe out the ships,” whereupon their prayers are answered, showing God’s special protection of America. The lesson then connects the site of Prince’s prayer, the Old South Church, to Samuel Adams and thus to the American Revolution. It trumpets the role of the “Black Robe Brigade,” putting ministers at the center of the revolution while ignoring the fact that Christian ministers could be found on both sides of the conflict.

This is an incredible distortion of American history, and it highlights a tremendous irony: by adopting this explicitly religious model of instruction, adapting it to U.S. history, and holding the event in Christian churches, the Christian right in the U.S. is doing precisely what it accuses Islam of doing: taking places of worship and turning them into vehicles for political indoctrination. No wonder they assume that the proposed Islamic center would do the same.

This projection is no accident. Much as they might deny it, American Christianists have some things in common with radical Islamists. Both reject the separation of church and state, and both see secular American society as plagued by moral degeneration. Two days after 9/11, Jerry Falwell blamed “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, the People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'” And Pat Robertson sat there and agreed.

More recently, in reaction to the California gay marriage decision, columnist and former vice-president of the Moral Majority Cal Thomas wrote: “Muslim fanatics who wish to destroy us are correct in their diagnosis of our moral rot…. While their solution—Sharia law—is wrong, they are not wrong about what ails us.” Thomas doesn’t say what the right solution is, but it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that, for him, it is Biblical law. His problem is not with religious law, as long as it is the right religious law.

When people react with such vehemence against the building of mosques, they are revealing far more about themselves than about Muslims. They are projecting their own theocratic political vision onto their perceived enemies. While I’m not suggesting that people like Fischer and Thomas are crypto-terrorists, their ideas are dangerous, fanatical and antithetical to American principles.

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