An Appeal to Mitt Romney for Republican Leadership on the Mosque Issue

Does the Park51 Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan (also known by the misnomer “Ground Zero Mosque”) present an opportunity for Mitt Romney to assume and evince leadership in the Republican Party, possibly even ousting populist Tea Party Anti-Federalist demagogues based on fundamental Federalist principles in the process?

Setting aside the obvious Mormon angle to this mosque situation[1], and overlooking the regrettable statement by a Romney aide on August 10 that “Governor Romney opposes the construction of the mosque at Ground Zero”[2], this situation seems like it could be such an opening for Romney. Could he even turn the Tea Party (back) into the Federalist Party and thereby get Republicans back on track after the meltdown of 2008?

In Federalist No. 71, Alexander Hamilton lauded political leaders who had “courage and magnanimity enough to serve [the people] at the peril of their displeasure.” A bold but principled statement in support of the Muslims here, it appears, would indeed be issued at the peril of the displeasure of many who have been swayed by the demagoguery of certain high-profile “Tea Party” political pundits. But, as Hamilton notes, “the republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.”

The mosque controversy is a “sudden breeze of passion” — it is in every sense a “transient impulse” that the people have received “from the arts of men [and women], who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests”. As noted in a recent New York Times opinion piece[3], plans to build an Islamic community center did not seem to bother anyone, even among Fox News’ commenters, when they were first announced in December 2009. As an important mid-term election year wore on, it seems that political pundits and demagogues recognized it as a powerful wedge issue and cynically employed it as such. Charged with emotion, especially as framed and presented by such calculating pundits, it has had the power to induce normally relatively tolerant and reasonable people to betray their own interests to see it through. These people are not bigots and are likely truly opposing the plans to build the community center out of a sense of indignation provoked by the way the political leaders they trust have framed the issue.

But successfully influencing the owners of Park51 not to build their planned community center there would indeed be a betrayal of all Americans’ interest, even if the people whose passions have been inflamed at the moment do not see it right now. If these Muslims are pressured not to build at Park51, it will be a strike against the “diversity of our cultural expression, and the vibrancy of our religious dialogue,” both of which truly set America apart, as Mitt Romney noted in his “Faith in America” speech during his 2008 presidential campaign. All people of faith in the United States, and particularly adherents of minority religions, should be interested in maintaining our atmosphere of religious and cultural pluralism. This diversity and indeed pluralism is made possible by our robust First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which collectively incorporate the lofty ideals of the Declaration of Independence — the Lockean triumvirate of Life, Liberty and Property (in Jefferson’s gloss) — into the concrete Constitutional framework that makes our society possible. Romney continued in his speech, explaining that in this atmosphere of diversity, “we do not insist on a single strain of religion — rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.” That symphony is turning into a cacophony before our very ears and the dissonance will affect everyone eventually if the Muslims of Park51 are shouted down.[4]

Hamilton continues, noting that in a republican government, “when occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection”. This is where we need leadership from Mitt Romney. Given his background and the principles he has stated, he is the person to whom we should be able to look at this time to stand firm against this sudden breeze of passion and to pursue the right course through principled leadership.

In the end, this might have been a missed opportunity for Mitt Romney after all. What might have put him in an even better position for a new bid for the presidency (because after “more cool and sedate reflection” the people will realize that it was right to support the community center and wrong to bully or pressure the owners of the site not to build their community center there, under any pretext), might instead mire him down in mediocrity and populism with the other Republican hopefuls, rendering him unremarkable.

If Mitt Romney does not take a stand, perhaps this will create room for another Republican politician who has already shown his value as a leader embodying the republican principle described by Hamilton in Federalist No. 71. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently weighed in again on the issue, saying, “We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.” Now this is a Republican statement if I ever heard one.

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[1] Stephen Prothero writes that in the end analysis, he holds Mormons to a higher standard on issues of religious freedom:

I thought that Romney, as a Mormon, might speak out passionately for the First Amendment. I thought he might remember how the founder of his religion, Joseph Smith Jr., was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. I thought he might recall how the U.S. government brought down much of its coercive power against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Apparently not. According to a statement released on August 10 by his spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom, “Governor Romney opposes the construction of the mosque at Ground Zero. The wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda compel rejection of this site.”

But Romney’s aide’s initial (delayed) comment about the mosque violates his own principles, as adroitly noted in a recent Boston Globe editorial, with reference to Romney’s speech on religious freedom from his presidential campaign.

The more obvious Mormon angle to this mosque issue actually only seems to surface in discussions among Mormons. It can be summed up by a line in a friend’s recent exasperated email, “Mormons who want to keep Muslims from constructing a place of worship ANYWHERE make me sick to my stomach.” — The point being: How could any Mormon in good conscience side with a populist movement to influence a religious group not to build on property they own? Is this not what Mormons face nearly every time we try to build a temple, and sometimes even when we try to build a chapel?

The Muslims at issue here obviously have every right to build at the Park51 location under principles of religious freedom and private property, subject to compliance with zoning ordinances. As a result the pundits who are (cynically?) trying to use this as a wedge issue during an election year are appealing to a “sensitivity” argument instead. It would be insensitive of Muslims to build a community center here because Ground Zero is a couple of blocks away. This argument is based on flawed premises, as noted below, but it ultimately boils down to a statement that building the community center at that location in Lower Manhattan is in “bad taste”. If Mormons do not stand up in support of these Muslims on this issue, what will we say the next time residents oppose the building of a Mormon chapel or temple in their neighborhood? They can argue that building it there is in bad taste and add that to often pretextual arguments about blocking views and increased traffic.

Mormons should also be able to identify the following two main flawed premises underlying the insensitivity argument. The first one, in particular, should motivate Mormons to support these Muslims as a similar argument is often aimed at Mormons:

(1) The insensitivity argument necessarily relies on a false equivalency between the Islamist extremists who perpetrated 9/11 and the Muslims who are involved in building this mosque. Absent this false equivalency, the argument does not make any sense. Would it be insensitive for a group of Sikhs to build a temple on that spot? Of course not because Sikhs did not perpetrate 9/11. Is it insensitive for these Muslims to build a community center in Lower Manhattan? Of course not because these Muslims are not affiliated with Al Qaeda or other terrorists responsible for 9/11.

This fundamentally flawed premise should motivate Mormons to stand up for the Muslims who are being scrutinized here. How often does the same public that is opposing the building of this community center employ a false equivalency between Mormons and the FLDS? Would it be insensitive for Mormons to build a chapel a few blocks away from where the FLDS committed some bad act? Of course not — as Mormons we do not view ourselves as in any way affiliated with the FLDS, so we would protest being burdened with a collective blame or guilt for something done by the FLDS.

(2) The “insensitive” argument also seems to necessarily rely on the premise that “survivors” of 9/11 are uniformly offended by Muslims unaffiliated with 9/11 building a community center in Lower Manhattan. But among the casualties of 9/11 were many Muslims. Do their survivors object uniformly to building a community center there? Also, some survivors (family members of victims) support the idea of Muslims building a community center there. So which survivors matter, those who are taking offense or those who support the proposed building? Why should the preferences of the survivors who oppose the building, if there really are any, hold sway over the preferences of survivors who support it?

[2] The aide went on to say that “The wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda compel rejection of this site.” In a certain sense, this statement by Romney’s aide could be seen as rendering the inquiry in this post merely theoretical because Romney might feel unable to speak out in support of the Muslims now given the accusations he fielded during his presidential campaign of having changed his position on key issues.

[3] Frank Rich, How Fox Betrayed Petraeus, The New York Times, August 21, 2010 (noting that “there was zero reaction to the ‘ground zero mosque’ from the front-line right or anyone else except marginal bloggers when The Times first reported on the Park51 plans in a lengthy front-page article on Dec. 9, 2009. The sole exception came some two weeks later at Fox News, where Laura Ingraham, filling in on ‘The O’Reilly Factor,’ interviewed Daisy Khan, the wife of the project’s organizer, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Ingraham gave the plans her blessing. ‘I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,’ she said. ‘I like what you’re trying to do.'”). Interestingly, Rich points out another way that the opposition to the community center is clearly against our interests as a people and in particular against the interests of the most hawkish among the Tea Party/Republicans:

You’d think that American hawks invested in the Afghanistan ‘surge’ [led by General Petraeus] would not act against their own professed interests. But they couldn’t stop themselves from placing cynical domestic politics over country. . . .

After 9/11, President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and asked for tolerance for Muslims not necessarily because he was a humanitarian or knew much about Islam but because national security demanded it. An America at war with Islam plays right into Al Qaeda’s recruitment spiel. This month’s incessant and indiscriminate orgy of Muslim-bashing is a national security disaster for that reason — Osama bin Laden’s “next video script has just written itself,” as the former F.B.I. terrorist interrogator Ali Soufan put it — but not just for that reason. America’s Muslim partners, those our troops are fighting and dying for, are collateral damage. If the cleric behind Park51 — a man who has participated in events with Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes, for heaven’s sake — is labeled a closet terrorist sympathizer and a Nazi by some of the loudest and most powerful conservative voices in America, which Muslims are not?

In the latest CNN poll, American opposition is at an all-time high to both the ostensibly concluded war in Iraq (69 percent) and the endless one in Afghanistan (62 percent). Now, when the very same politicians and pundits who urge infinite patience for Afghanistan slime Muslims as Nazis, they will have to explain that they are not talking about Hamid Karzai or his corrupt narco-thug government or the questionably loyal Afghan armed forces our own forces are asked to entrust with their lives. The hawks will have to make the case that American troops should make the ultimate sacrifice to build a Nazi — Afghan, I mean — nation and that economically depressed taxpayers should keep paying for it. Good luck with that.

Poor General Petraeus. Over the last week he has been ubiquitous in the major newspapers and on television as he pursues a publicity tour to pitch the war he’s inherited. But have you heard any buzz about what he had to say? Any debate? Any anything? No one was listening and no one cared. Everyone was too busy yelling about the mosque.

It is not in America’s interest to give Islamist extremists evidence that, contrary to President Bush’s assurances that America is not at war with Islam but rather only with the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11, America really does oppose Islam in general, as shown by the strong opposition to allowing Muslims to build a community center that contains a prayer room on land they own in Lower Manhattan.

[4] What, for instance, will Mormons argue next time a sizeable group of people band together in opposition to the building of a Mormon temple in their community, especially if Mormons raised their voices in opposition to the building of the community center? (In the case of Mormon politicians, they will have raised their voices in opposition to the community center out of a perceived political expediency that runs directly contrary to Hamilton’s counsel in Federalist No. 71; in the case of other Mormons as a result of wanting to go along with a sizeable minority or even majority of those they view as political allies.)

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