When it comes to the proposed Islamic center near ground zero, I subscribe to President Barack Obama's position: "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country."
But that's old news. Today the debate is the debate. And this debate is far more consequential.
There are those who continue to make the facile claim that any protest over Park51 is a display in un-American intolerance and contempt for the Constitution. This position treats criticism of faith -- religious institutions and symbols included -- as tantamount to "bigotry."
Given that there remains overwhelming opposition to the ground zero mosque, this viewpoint would mean that 70 percent of Americans are impulsively hostile to freedom of religion and irrationally narrow-minded.
Could be. Or maybe a few of these folks believe the First Amendment features more than one clause. Even a newfound reverence for religious liberty on the left does not negate our right to protest and criticize the philosophical disposition of others. And applying public pressure in an effort to shut down a project is as American as protesting the arrival of a new Walmart. Religious institutions, as far as I can tell, are not exempted from these disputes.
In 2008, thousands of gay rights activists protested the Mormon temple in Westwood, Calif., for its role in passing Proposition 8 -- the ban on same-sex marriage. This grew into a national protest to undermine the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- even though not every Mormon was involved.
I don't recall anti-Mormon protesters being referred to as bigots for targeting religion; it appeared to be just the opposite, in fact. And if I am offended by aspects of Mormon theology, why not voice those concerns? Put it this way: If Mormons proposed the erection of a 13-story community center in West Hollywood or the West Village, I would be happy to join the outcry of protest.
Though only a fraction of Catholic priests are pedophiles, the entire Roman Catholic Church is routinely broad-brushed as corrupt and depraved. I've not heard those who make generalizations about Catholicism referred to as bigots in Time magazine. Nor have I heard those who regularly disparage evangelicals called intolerant.
These groups inject themselves into political and cultural disputes of the day -- as they have every right to do -- so they become fair game. And by building the Islamic center near ground zero, the backers of Park51 insert themselves in a broader political conversation.
As a person with a libertarian political temperament, I would loathe to see government shut down religious expression. As an atheist, I am distrustful of religion's influence on that freedom. But in the end, one is a discussion about the role of government in society and the other is a discussion about civilization. Few people in this debate make that distinction.
As we know, only a fraction of Muslims are radicalized to violence. Most Muslims are peaceful -- free to practice their religion unencumbered. All of this is indisputable. Prospectively speaking, unlike many other faiths, ideological Islam has a poor track record of compatibility with liberal ideals. Surely, that's worth a discussion in a free society. Or is it a case of intolerance to bring it up?
I've read numerous columns claiming that "allowing" a mosque to be built near ground zero is proof of our tolerant goodness. To be certain. But surely our ability to conduct a peaceful debate over the meaning of institutions, including religious ones, is also a reflection of that greatness.