I was recently walking down 14th Street in Washington, D.C., when I was stopped in my tracks by an inscription I read under a monument.
At the Reagan Building, in the entrance to the U.S. Agency for International Development, is a massive statue of a woman reclining on what appears to be a Victorian couch. Engraved on the pedestal beneath the statue were the following words: “Our liberty of worship is not a concession nor a privilege but an inherent right.”
As I stood there, staring at these words, I couldn’t help but think of the politically inspired controversy raging throughout the nation about building a mosque close to – not at – Ground Zero. It is obvious that the debate is designed to rally the xenophobic base to vote against a people who, according to the D.C. monument known as “Liberty of Worship,” have an inherent right – not a concession nor a privilege – to worship as their conscience leads them.
Hate and fear, two powerful political motivators, are unabashedly and unapologetically being employed to rally the worst in Americans. To equate a mosque with terrorists is either the height of ignorance or depth of callous manipulation.
Equating Al-Qaeda to Islam is like equating the Ku Klux Klan to Christianity. Both organizations may draw their inspiration from their respective faiths, but believers in each tradition would be among the first to disavow any connection between their faith and terrorists who claim to act in the name of that same faith.
When we consider the past 2,000 years of blood-soaked Christian history, the millions upon millions who were slaughtered in the name of Jesus because they refused to accept our imposed faith (think of religious wars in Europe or the genocide of indigenous people here), we can conclude that those of us who follow the Prince of Peace as Messiah have much more from which to repent.
Maybe that great modern-day theologian, Woody Allen, said it best: If Jesus were to return to earth, it would take him months to recover from throwing up over everything that has been done in his name.
To deny people the inherent right to worship because extreme elements of their tradition misused their sacred texts and teachings to advocate mayhem and death would mean that neither Muslims nor Christians would ever be allowed to build any house of worship close to Ground Zero.
And yet, close to Ground Zero there is a Catholic Church, in spite of its history of Crusades against Muslims or the Inquisition against fellow Christians. Also close to Ground Zero is the Dutch Reform Church with its own history of involvement with the slave trade.
We can go down the list of every Christian denomination and find pages in our past that we wish would not exist, but they do. And it is important that Christians committed to the Gospel message of salvation and liberation continue to distinguish between the terrorists within their own faith, and believers in Jesus’ actions and words – just as true believers in Allah have made the distinction between Al-Qaeda and the teaching of the Quran.
And yet, what should be a no-brainer – that all Americans should protect with their lives the freedom to worship, even if the religion is different from their own – has instead become a political hot potato used against the incumbent party.
Politicians like Newt Gingrich make the false comparison that building a mosque next to Ground Zero is like building a Japanese shrine next to Pearl Harbor. Although the analogy may sound reasonable at first glance, it ignores the inherit biases, if not racism, of the statement.
First, Pearl Harbor was attacked by a nation; and yes, I would agree that the nation of Japan should not build a monument by Pearl Harbor. The Twin Towers were brought down by a group of individual terrorists, not a nation, people or religion. And I agree that a group of terrorists should not be allowed to build a monument next to Ground Zero.
But a mosque is not a monument; it is a house of worship. And it is not being built by foreign terrorists, but by Americans who happen to be Muslims and have an inherent right to worship the Creator as their conscience leads them.
I am a Christian. I believe in the resurrection of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. My conversion to Christianity radically changed my life and continues to do so. I am a Christian and not a Muslim by choice.
Nevertheless, because of my faith, because of my belief in the Gospel message, because the very image of this God I worship resides in all humans, I will stand by my Muslim brothers and sisters and demand justice – and demand that the mosque be built.
Not for their sake, not for the sake of political correctness, nor for some idea of pluralism, but for my own sake. By denying others the inherent right to worship, as the Liberty of Worship monument reminds us, I devalue and debase my own faith and beliefs. I participate not in the physical violence unleashed by the terrorists on 9/11, but in an institutional violence that is just as deadly, for it robs fellow humans of their sacredness and dignity.
Those in power may succeed in preventing the building of the mosque. They may succeed in continuing to chip away at our freedoms due to their stringent ideologies and doctrinal beliefs.
If they do, heaven help us, for they truly would continue to create a new America far from the principles of our four freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and, of course, the freedom to worship.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.