As was observed long ago, the letter of the law killeth, while its spirit lets live. It's no simple task to follow even the simplest principle in the American scheme of things, including the separation of church and state. Or in this case, the separation of mosque and state.
Just because we have a right to do something under the law, like build a mosque in close proximity to what has become hallowed ground in our shared history, doesn't make it the right thing to do. Blindly following the letter of the law may produce only an on-going provocation and its surest result, on-going resentment. And so defeat an essential purpose of law: to let us all of us live in peace and with mutual respect.
And with respect for what can only be called the ineffable. There are certain places in this country that are hallowed ground, where a haunting presence stills us, humbles us, and makes us think of something besides ourselves and our own rights. The Lincoln Memorial at midnight. Gettysburg as the day lengthens and yellows in the last rays of a setting sun. That field outside Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 finally went down after its passengers refused to be passive victims of terror that fateful day, September 11, 2001.
Another such site is Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers once stood. It, too, is holy ground. And it makes certain demands of us. Those demands aren't easy to spell out in so many words, but all of us know that we must tread carefully at such places. And even around them.
There are other sites around the world hallowed by what took place there. And other controversies have swirled around them, too, conflicts remarkably similar to the one now erupting over the location of a projected mosque and cultural center near Ground Zero.
A large cross once towered over Treblinka, marking the convent of Carmelite nuns nearby. There was nothing wrong with the cross itself. But to have a symbol of another faith so dominate a scene where so many Jews were gassed in one of the great crimes of that or any other century ... it would not have been right. There should be no need to explain why; even to attempt to do so somehow demeans the memory of the dead. As none other than John Paul II, that blessed man, understood. His decision to move the convent did not go down well with the nuns who had served there so long, but the pope understood not just the letter but the spirit of the law, and that the law of love of our fellow man is above all others.
How right would it be if, God forbid, the Dome of the Rock that now crowns the Temple Mount in Jerusalem were to be destroyed and the ancient Jewish temple rebuilt nearby? The sight would be not only a casus belli but also surely a violation of the command to love thy neighbor -- not deeply offend him. Yet you can bet that Israeli police have to keep tabs on the kind of Jewish fanatics who harbor just such hateful delusions.
If this 15-story structure planned near Ground Zero is truly to be a center of interfaith understanding, surely those planning it could find a place for it where its purpose would not be obscured by its very location. For its presence so close to the scene of that monstrous crime would inevitably be seen as a thumb in America's eye. It would serve as a constant provocation, attracting protests and making still more work for New York's already stressed police force. However legal such a location might be.
Only the literal-minded could view this controversy as just a matter of what the First Amendment says on paper and nothing more, including the historical context in which the rights it guarantees would be exercised. And the effect that exercising them would have on others. That kind of tone-deafness might qualify those who exhibit it as sharp lawyers, but not as serious thinkers.
Lest we forget, even black-letter law comes surrounded by white space in which there is plenty of room for commentary, nuance and reflection. Space in which reasonable men may differ over whether it is responsible to exercise a legally unquestionable, but ethically debatable, right.
All those dimensions were missing from Professor/President Barack Obama's cut-and-dried law-school lecture on the subject delivered at a dinner marking the beginning of Ramadan -- followed by a clarification that didn't much clarify. Where does the president come down on this issue? Who knows? As best one can tell, he favors building the mosque but not necessarily.
The letter of the law is no substitute for the understanding spirit that softens and raises it to the level of ethics and morality, a law above the law. John Adams said it: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Without an inner light, and an inner sense of restraint, the law becomes just a playing field for a Hobbesian war of all against all, a confused struggle in which all are so intent on exercising their own rights they forget the rights, and feelings, of others.
The Constitution of the United States rightly protects the free exercise of religion. But like any other right, it comes with an unspoken responsibility: to exercise that most effective form of restraint, self-restraint. Call it manners, as John Fletcher Moulton did in his famous address, "Law and Manners." And manners maketh not only the man but the nation. Without manners, that self-enforcing law, a society cannot hope to remain both free and orderly. In such a society, there is a responsibility to be more than legal. There is a responsibility to be generous, kind, considerate, self-denying -- to be right in more than a limited legal sense, to practice and invite reciprocity. That way lies peace. As in Salaam Aleikem -- peace unto you. And to all of us.