Thursday, September 9, 2010

Whether Park 51 or burning Qurans, liberty is not propriety

by Thomas S. Kidd

USA Today
September 9, 2010

As we approach the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the debate over Islam's place in American society is reaching a boiling point. This summer, with the proposed building of the Park 51 Islamic center within two blocks of New York's Ground Zero, the question of Islamophobia has once again gripped the American public. The controversy has revealed a crucial distinction in our commitment to religious freedom: the difference between the right to exercise one's faith, and the propriety of doing so. The Cordoba Initiative and its supporters have put all the emphasis on their right to build the Islamic center, a right that most Americans certainly affirm. But many question the propriety of building it on the proposed site. Does raising the question of propriety equal Islamophobia, as some of the center's defenders allege? Absolutely not. Freedom of religion does not guarantee freedom from criticism.

To be sure, real religious freedom extends liberty to those whose opinions we do not share. In the 1770s, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison insisted that even the long-persecuted evangelical Baptists of Virginia should have full religious liberty, which their state achieved in 1786 with the passage of Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. But neither Jefferson nor Madison much liked the evangelicals' intense faith, which Jefferson for one saw as religious fanaticism. Jefferson in particular knew that if the government persecuted evangelicals for their beliefs, it might persecute anyone (including skeptics like himself). So religious liberty, for the Founding Fathers, granted freedom to worship but did not require cheery approval of every church's views or actions.