religious freedom revisited

It grieves me to see that as religious freedom for American Christians comes increasingly under attack, some American Christians — I’m not even going to link to them — are hoping to undermine religious freedom for Muslims. They are depressingly unaware that they are eagerly weaving the rope from which their own religious freedoms will be hanged. In such a climate I want to re-post something I wrote for The American Scene six years ago, when there was a fuss over the possibility of a mosque being built near the World Trade Center site. I would especially call your attention to the link to George Washington’s letter to the Newport Synagogue, one of the most important documents in the history of religious liberty and far too little noticed today.

Of course Mayor Bloomberg is rightof course. It’s sad that there should even be debate about the core legal principles involved. Whether the building of a mosque so near Ground Zero is a good idea — whether it promotes the health of the city, as some of the proponents of the scheme say they want to do — is a completely different question, a matter of social prudence. About this reasonable people will disagree.

But legally the situation is simple, as the mayor points out: “with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building. The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship. The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right – and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.” He could delete the “almost” in that last sentence.

But the really sad thing is that people who call themselves conservatives — Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin — should be crying out for apparatuses of the state to limit and police voluntary religious association. This is a profoundly anti-conservative view in two ways. First, it is historically myopic, as Mayor Bloomberg’s brief history of controversies about religious freedom in New York City demonstrates. It’s remarkable that people who invoke the Founders so regularly and in such tones of devotion could be utterly deaf to the Founders’ concern to ensure freedom for mistrusted minority religions. They might start by reading George Washington’s once-famous letter to the Newport synagogue, paying special attention to this sentence: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.” In Washington’s understanding, it is misbegotten even to ask the question, “Should we tolerate this?”

Moreover, the Gingrich-Palin view of the matter is as blind to the future as it is to the past. No one would make such an argument who did not anticipate that his or her own religious preferences will forever be enshrined as the socially dominant ones. Having endorsed the principle that minority religions can be policed by the state, Gingrich and Palin may well be unpopular figures to their descendants, if Christianity continues to decline as a force in American culture.

In its origins, with Burke, conservatism was supposed to be about taking the long view, having proper deference to the wisdom of our ancestors and taking proper care for the flourishing of our descendants. This is also what Chesterton meant when he said that tradition is “the democracy of the dead.” Burke thought this long view was most likely to be taken by the aristocracy, but in a society without an aristocracy there needs to be a body of intellectuals who take it as their special mission to meditate on the “first things”, one might say, that link us to those who went before us and those who will come after.

The approach Gingrich and Palin take to the proposed lower Manhattan mosque has nothing to do with conservatism in this sense. It is neither conservative, nor liberal, nor anything else worthy to be called “political thought.” It is an infantile grasping after a fleeting and elusive cultural dominance.

June 8, 2016

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