Among the Intellectualoids

The Religious Left and the Ground Zero Mosque

At last there's a religious cause that excites progressive religious leaders.

By 8.27.10

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How fascinating that the U.S. Religious Left, usually so indifferent to religious liberty when relating to churches, at home, or abroad, has zealously embraced the Ground Zero mosque controversy as a Manichaean struggle between freedom and bigotry.

Churches, especially larger ones, routinely battle zoning bureaucracies or community resistance in the U.S. Poor St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church lost its sanctuary on 9-11 and has struggled for 9 nine years against government inertia to rebuild. If evangelicals had sought to tear down a 150-year-old building near Ground Zero to construct a high rise mega-church and "cultural center" for evangelistic outreach in lower Manhattan, funded by murky sources, the reaction among New York elites can be easily imagined. The groundbreaking, if ever, might occur around 2025, almost certainly at a different location.

But the Cordoba House Ground Zero mosque has been zealously embraced by New York's mayor and countless others, with fast tracked hopes of completion within one year, just in time for September 11, 2011. The psychology behind the enthusiasm for the mosque on this particular site almost certainly includes a multi-culturalist fervor for non-Western religious and political movements. Touting the Ground Zero mosque is a cheap way to advertise virtue and tolerance in contrast with the ostensible xenophobia of all skeptics.

The zest for the Ground Zero mosque by the chief of the National Council of Churches (NCC) is especially revealing. NCC officials once plausibly spoke for millions of U.S. church members. The NCC has its own towering temple of sorts in Manhattan, the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive. When built 50 years ago, it symbolized confident Mainline Protestant domination of American culture. But in recent decades, the eviscerated NCC has come merely to echo the surrounding liberal secular culture of its upper Westside neighborhood next to Columbia University.

According to NCC chief Michael Kinnamon, in his endorsement of the Ground Zero Mosque as a "gesture of neighborliness and healing," "hundreds" of Muslims died at the World Trade Center on 9-11. This claim is remarkable, as it implies that well over 10 percent of the over 2700 victims at Ground Zero were Muslim, even though only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to most studies, is Muslim. Even Muslim groups, in their claims, say about 2 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim. This claim from Rev. Kinnamon is revealing, because religious and cultural elites of the left very much want to believe that the U.S. is far more religiously diverse than the reality.

Kinnamon derided the "prejudice," "ignorance," and "narrow-minded intolerance" that supposedly fuel all opposition to the mosque at Ground Zero. Ostensibly this same "ignorance" generates "hate crimes and systematic discrimination" against Muslims. Observe Kinnamon's assumption, so common on the religious and cultural left, that America is hateful and anxious to discriminate against religious minorities. Doubtless among 300 million Americans, some prejudice exists. Doubtless also, the vast majority of American Muslims experience greater freedom and less discrimination than they would commonly experience in majority Muslim countries. But how difficult for figures like Kinnamon to imagine Americans, especially Christians, as any other than victimizers, or religious minorities, especially Muslims anywhere in the world, as any other than victims of Western, Christian or U.S. inspired oppression.

For good measure, Kinnamon darkly recalled with "painful contrition" that "European settlers came to these shores with a determination to conquer and settle at the expense of millions of indigenous peoples who were regarded as sub-human savages." He also cited American slavery and the World War II era interment of Japanese Americans. Seemingly he believes that passionately endorsing the Ground Zero mosque will atone for some of America's crimes. Avid, guilt-ridden multiculturalists, with their highly selective historical recalls, never quite explain how all the chauvinistic imperialists who founded the United States somehow inadvertently created the world's most extravagantly tolerant multicultural democracy.

Sojourners Evangelical Left activist Jim Wallis, in contrast with Kinnamon, at least plausibly pegged Muslim fatalities at Ground Zero on 9-11 at 59, not "hundreds." But in a vein similar to the NCC chief, he bewailed the "right-wing media" in "full swing to smear my friends Imam Faisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan," against whom critics are "fabricating" charges to "stoke fear and hatred." Wallis did not describe the "fabrications." But reputedly, among other concerns, the Ground Zero mosque imam has defended Hamas and has some favorable views towards Iran's theocracy. Do these views concern Wallis or Kinnamon at all? Would their support for the mosque not be more credible if they challenged Wallis's "friend" the imam to disavow his distressing stances that are less than "moderate?" Would a conservative Christian clergy striving to build a mega-church at Ground Zero not face wide criticism if, however implausibly, he were still defending Apartheid South Africa? Would purported concerns about religious liberty similarly protect that pastor from any condemnation?

Wallis characterized opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque as based on the "assumption" that "all" Muslims are "guilty of the crimes committed by terrorists who claim the mantle of Islam." Of course, Wallis's charge distorts a more subtle concern. Mosque critics have plausibly warned that a mosque on this particular site will be championed by radical Islamists globally as a symbolic victory. Wallis said he did not want to be held accountable for Christianity's "fundamentalist extremes," and neither should American Muslims. Typically the Religious Left is more frightened of conservative Christians than of radical Islamists. But there are not 100 million Christians in the world sympathizing with al Qaeda style terrorism, as surveys indicate that about 10 percent of the world's 1 billion Muslims do. And there are no Christian theocracies in the world, nor are there any significant Christian theocratic political movements (despite Religious Left fantasies to the contrary) seeking to subvert American democracy with their own coercive "holy" law.

Defending the Ground Zero mosque, while also recognizing the peculiar challenge of integrating even "moderate" Islam into American democracy, would strengthen Wallis's and Kinnamon's arguments. But such nuances are strangers to fervid multiculturalists, who distort America, especially its Christians, into mindless ogres, while simplistically insisting on the benign innocence of the rest of the world, especially America's "victims."

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.