Speechifying against building a mosque near Ground Zero has cranked up since Sarah Palin’s tweet three weeks ago that said, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.”

As a panelist on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” page, I contributed a piece that critiqued the issue.


“If religious liberty is an American hallmark, then a mosque near Ground Zero would be an American landmark to our nation’s commitment to religious freedom for all. What better cultural signpost could we offer than one that says America is guided by its better angels, not its dark demons of fear and politicians of demagoguery,” I wrote.


I reminded Post readers that “a Baptist founder, Thomas Helwys, advocated for religious liberty for ‘Turks’ in Christian England in a letter to King James I” and that “after the adoption of the Constitution John Leland, a Virginia Baptist minister, rejoiced that it would be possible for a ‘pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian’ to be elected to political office.”


In the same section of the Post, Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist and former Moral Majority leader, played the Islamophobia card.


“To Jews and Christians, lying is something to be avoided. For Muslims, lying is an allowable practice so long as it advances Islam. A mosque near Ground Zero is not about tolerance, but triumphalism. It isn’t about honoring the dead, but celebrating their deaths,” he wrote. “Recall those who danced in the streets in Muslim lands on 9/11. That is reality.”


Thomas is apparently unfamiliar with Islamic organizations that have continuously denounced terrorism and sought the common good based on the common word in both the Christian and Islamic traditions of love for neighbor.


Unfortunately, since Palin’s tweet, the debate about the mosque has generated even more heat.


New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has approved an advertisement that will appear on buses, featuring a plane heading into the World Trade Center at one end of the banner ad and a skyscraper with a crescent at the other end. The words “Why There?” are in between the images. The ad is sponsored by a group calling itself “Stop Islamization of America.”


Fox News’ Glenn Beck has pushed the falsehood that the mosque would be open on Sept. 11, 2011. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by Pat Robertson, has filed a lawsuit to obstruct the mosque’s construction.


The always morally challenged Newt Gingrich weighed in. He said with all seriousness that there are no synagogues or churches in Saudi Arabia – as if Saudi Arabia was the standard bearer for religious liberty, a standard we ought to bear.


Comedian Jon Stewart stepped into the breach with a witty response to such nonsense.


Steward fired back sarcastically at Gingrich with the right question: “Why should we as Americans have higher standards of religious liberty than Saudi Arabia?”


Adding fuel to the fire, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement claiming support for religious liberty – except in the case of a mosque near Ground Zero.


CNN’s Fareed Zakaria responded to the ADL with an announcement that he was returning a freedom award and an accompanying $10,000 honorarium that he had received from the organization.


“I urge the ADL to reverse its decision. Admitting an error is a small price to pay to regain a reputation,” said Zakaria.


Addressing Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL, Zakaria asked, “[D]oes Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?”


Stewart and Zakaria provided moral clarity amid widespread and intense opposition to the mosque.


Their perspectives and others of goodwill – like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who offered a striking speech for religious liberty – are being drowned out.


A new CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans are opposed to a mosque near Ground Zero. The poll showed that 54 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 82 percent of Republicans are against the project.


By region, 75 percent of those in the South oppose the building of the mosque in New York City, compared to 65 percent in the Northeast and Midwest.


I wonder if Americans in general and Baptists in particular are in favor of religious liberty only in theory and seldom in practice.


Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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