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 The News: Religious Freedom In America

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

Muslins are planning to build a mosque and community center in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero of the 9/11 attac[k] on the World Trade Center. In order to begin construction, the Muslim organization that is building the center has passed through every procedure required by the City of New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Jew, has spoken out strongly in defense of the project. Commentators have pointed out (I believe accurately) that were the 13 story building being built as a Jewish synagogue or a Christian church, not a peep of protest would be heard. No one would be protesting that the building was insensitive to those who died in the 9/11 attack.

We all need to be reminded that the people who died on 9/11 respresented a broad spectrum of religious persuasions. American Catholics, American Protestant Christians of many varieties, American Jews and, yes, American Muslims died. Included in the victims were atheists and agnostics. Sprinkled in were probably a few Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists. Anyone who knows a bit about New York City is fully aware of the splendid diversity of people who live and work there. The people who were working in the twin towers and died on 9/11 most certainly reflected a cross section of the New York City population. People of every religious persuasion were big losers on 9/11. ...

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President Barak Obama made a statement about the building of the mosque in lower Manhattan. It was a precise statement about religious freedom in America. We should all be reminded that President Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. His simple statement is a clear indication that he understands the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Included in the First Amendment are these words…Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The protests seem to center on two issues. The first is the sensitivity issue. Simply put, Muslims flew the planes that crashed the twin towers. For Muslims to build a mosque so near Ground Zero is to add insult to injury. Muslims by intent are forcing every person who passes the Mosque to be reminded that Muslims inflicted enormous damage on America and got away with it. This attitude assumes that all Muslims are cut out of the same cloth, despise Americans, are violent by conviction and took pleasure in the attack on the towers.

Those who want to raise the sensitivity issue are doing the very thing of which they are accusing Muslims. They are showing no sensitivity toward the millions of American Muslims who are loyal to the United States and cherish flag and nation. They are placing judgments on Muslims who have come to our country for the same reasons that we and our ancestors came. They are placing judgments on Americans who have become Muslim for reasons of conscience. They are equating being Muslim with violence and deceit. The great conclusion is that Muslims cannot be trusted.

The second underlying issue is the emergence of Christian nationalism. There is a significant part of the American population (possibly as many as 20 percent), who believe that the United States has been chosen by God to be a special people led by Christians. Their vision is the United States leading the world under the banner of Christ. The triumphant Christ is a vision that is very firmly imbedded in parts of the New Testament. It is a vision of the world in which every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Christ is Lord.

One of the marks of Christian nationalism is that the movement is strongly dualistic. In their form of dualism, enemies are always identified. In their scheme of understanding, Muslims have become the enemy that must be defeated.

In today’s world Christians are very diverse. This has always been the case in Christian history. Among Christians there have always been peace lovers and militants who grab a sword with little provocation. Between the extremes the varieties of Christians are endless.

The same is true of Muslims. Just as there is an ongoing struggle among Christians for the soul of the Faith, so also is there an ongoing struggle among Muslims for the soul of Islam. The militants of both faiths have become very powerful. When Christian militants and Muslim militants tangle, mighty battles ensue. The Crusades are history’s finest example.

At the present time the tensions between Christian and Muslim are heightened by world events. Trust is at a very low level. Emotions are at high tide. The building of a mosque near Ground Zero elevates the fears.

As I try to live out my best understanding of Christian Faith, I simply see my new neighbor as a Muslim that I am to love. I look at the new mosque near Ground Zero as an opportunity to build a new and different kind of neighborhood.



The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister,
who lives in Palmer, Alaska.
His email address is [email protected]


[24 August 2010]

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