September 3, 2010
In the United States, freedom of religion is written into our national DNA. The First Amendment to the Constitution begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Such freedom is precious to us—as well it should be. As thoughtful observers have noted, religious freedom is the first freedom. In some ways, it is the lynchpin of all our other freedoms, which would be hollow indeed without the freedom to worship—or not to worship—according to the dictates of individual conscience.
Religious freedom simply is not an American idea. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
Given our nation's bedrock commitment to religious liberty, and also my own as a Christian, I endorse the right of Muslims associated with the Cordoba Initiative to build a mosque and community center near Ground Zero in New York. Freedom of religion must apply equally to Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist—not to mention agnostics and atheists. Otherwise, we are not truly free. This freedom, of course, ought to be subject to reasonable community standards, such as local zoning laws. We all have to live peaceably with one another.
But the Ground Zero mosque is no longer primarily a legal issue or a question of religious liberty—if it ever was. It is instead a question of decency. Most Americans who oppose the building of the mosque do not dispute the right of Muslims in the United States to construct a mosque wherever they want. The question is not "may they?" but "should they?"
Feelings will forever be raw over the 9/11 terror attacks committed by fanatical Muslims for a $100 million mosque to go up near the scene of this crime against humanity. That's true even if the Muslims backing the mosque have the purest of motives, which is highly suspect.
And if, as advertised, the purpose of the mosque and community center is promoting interreligious tolerance and understanding, it has been a spectacular failure before the first brick has been laid. About two in three Americans oppose the mosque going up near Ground Zero, and some Muslim groups are publicly worrying about the possible increase in hate crimes against Muslims over the issue. At the very least, if the ultimate goal is religious harmony, a decision to push through a huge mosque near that site is a tactical blunder of the first rank.
Yet even with the tensions this issue has raised, America remains the most religiously tolerant and open society the world has ever known. Our ability to endure the effrontery of the proposed Ground Zero mosque testifies to the strength of our culture. Religiously motivated riots break out all over the world on a regular basis over much smaller provocations. Not here, thank God.
Other nations can only dream of such tolerance. Can you imagine what the reaction would be in Saudi Arabia if Christians there—and, yes, there are Christians there—demanded the right to build churches? There is no reciprocity in the Muslim world, though there ought to be. If Muslims can build here, why can't Christians build in Muslim lands?
Of course, Christians whose lives are controlled by the followers of Islam can't even dream of such reciprocity. They are too busy trying to survive. And this fact brings us to another little understood dimension to the Ground Zero mosque controversy. The sad fact is that our response, as a nation and as Christians, could well jeopardize the lives of millions of Christians living under Islam. If we protest in a vicious way, Muslims around the world may well become outraged and take their outrage out on the vulnerable minority Christians in their midst.
A church in Florida - the Dove World Outreach Center - has promised to burn the Muslim holy book, the Quran, on September 11 to protest Muslim abuses. This is a disaster on two fronts: first, it violates the command of Jesus to love everyone, and second, it will very likely cause Christians worldwide to be more vilified and persecuted. It is a sin to commit an act, not violent in itself, if you know that act would bring harm to another person. Such would be the case here.
Yes, like the Ground Zero mosque issue, this church might have a legal right because of religious freedom in this country to burn the Quran, but is it the good, decent and honorable thing to do? Again, the answer is "no." Remember how Muslims reacted to the Muhammad cartoons several years ago? The response could be even more violent this time. Can you imagine what Al Jazeera, an Arabic international news network, would do with the footage? It would be a nightmare.
Yes, religious freedom is a blessing. And so is common sense. We need more of both.
Carl Moeller, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Open Doors USA (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry supporting the religious and humanitarian rights of Christians since 1955.