The controversy over the construction of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City is escalating. The issue is being portrayed by some as a “conservative versus liberal” controversy.
In fact, there are very good reasons – from a conservative perspective – why the building of the mosque should not be barred by governmental action.
A true conservative wishes to conserve the values and dictates of the U.S. Constitution. It is a truly amazing development when conservatives like Newt Gingrich write in opposition to the mosque near Ground Zero without addressing any of the constitutional issues involved.
Gingrich has written: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” He invokes emotional considerations but fails to speak to the issue of the political liberties of American citizens that are being brought into question.
Saudi Arabia does not have a Bill of Rights with a First Amendment that ensures free exercise of religion, such as we do. Does Gingrich really think this constitutional guarantee should be ignored and violated by governmental action because Saudi Arabia does not guarantee such liberty?
The building of the mosque has been opposed by conservatives like Gingrich based on the perceived statement that it is making or based upon opposition to the religious-political views and statements of the imam involved. The same Bill of Rights guarantees the free speech of all American citizens. Legal prohibition of the building of the mosque based upon the speech and views of those wishing to build it would violate the free speech rights of the American citizens involved.
Constitutional protection of religious liberty and free speech is a major expression of the “American exceptionalism” that conservatives rightly celebrate. It is a major difference between our system of government and that of Muslim nations. How can it be truly conservative to obliterate such a grand and wonderful distinction?
The Founding Fathers clearly recognized Islam to be a religion and intended that Muslim Americans enjoy First Amendment protection of religious liberty. On a “strict construction” and “original intent” interpretation of the First Amendment – a mainstay of conservative constitutional philosophy – the issue is therefore settled. How can a conservative advocate any political action that would violate the meaning and application of the First Amendment to which conservatives are in principle committed?
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In the absence of legitimate zoning issues (and such are lacking in this specific case), how can it be truly conservative to advocate legal prohibition of the mosque when such a prohibition would also violate the property rights of the American citizens involved?
Opposition to the mosque in question cannot be truly conservative when it violates conservative values and principles such as the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and freedom to use one’s property for any legal, constitutionally protected purpose.
When some conservatives argue that the mosque is provocative to the majority or insensitive to the feelings of a minority (family members of 9/11 victims), they argue like the liberals they oppose. Conservatives have stated that the legitimate exercise of rights by individuals or members of a majority should not be infringed upon because of the perceptions or claims of hurt feelings on the part of other individuals or minority groups.
Yet now, some conservatives argue that the feelings of some American citizens trump the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights of other American citizens. Again we have inconsistency with conservative principles and positions – by conservatives.
It is time to recognize that some conservatives are advocating a radical, reactionary majoritarianism – not conservatism. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, they do so without recognizing what they are in fact doing. This is leading them to advocate truly nonconservative and anti-Constitutional positions and actions.
They have a right to such expressions of free speech, but they have no legal right to use government to implement their views.
Mark Weldon Whitten is professor of philosophy at Lone Star College-Montgomery in The Woodlands, Texas.