Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Keep Your Sacred Cows Off My Grass

Opponents of the lower Manhattan mosque such as atheist (if I may) Charles Krauthammer say it's not a matter of using government power to stop it but just making clear that having an Islamic installation so close to the World Trade Center is aesthetically offensive. Sure, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has the right to build wherever he wants. But you have to wonder about the motives and basic human decency of anyone who would insist on doing something that's so disruptive to tender local sensibilities.

For his part, atheist (while I'm at it) Christopher Hitchens would like to question Rauf about his support for Iran's theocracy and his dubious theories about U.S. foreign policy and the Sept. 11 attacks. I can certainly understand that. As I've argued in this space, I'd like to ask the imam about women's rights myself -- not as an excuse for denying him permission to build his community center and mosque, you understand. But such questions would be a legitimate part of the vetting process, would they not?

Of course if the Roman Catholic Church wanted to build a new parish in an upscale neighborhood in Manhattan or San Francisco where Democrats had a 30% edge in voter registration, there might well be some pro-choice activists with questions of their own. It's not that anyone would want to take away the church's First Amendment rights. But you'd have to wonder about the capacity for empathy and basic good taste of those who want to deprive women of control over their own bodies trying to get a foothold in a neighborhood where their views would be considered noxious and even dangerous.

Now that I think about it, the hyper-Orthodox rabbi at my local Chabad Center probably has some extreme views about Arabs and their genetic links to the Amalek raiders as described in the book of Genesis. If he and his congregation want to expand their facility by building a preschool, that's all well and good. But local Arab-American groups might first want to ask, perhaps during a public hearing, about the curriculum -- though not to limit anyone's religious rights, no sirree Bob!

If I were a Latino and the LDS wanted to put a stake on my street, I'd definitely have a question or two about Mormon missionaries who dupe mis hermanos into converting by claiming that we're all descended -- get this! -- from a lost tribe of Israelites who came to North America 2600 years ago, which Mormons claim as a special revelation and anthropologists say is total bunk. I'm all for freedom of religion, but that doesn't meant I have to put up with Glenn Beck and his ilk foisting that kind of harmful racial mythology on my kids.

If I'm against gay marriage, and I think gay sex is a sin that disqualifies someone from ordained ministry, don't you dare try to put an Episcopal parish on my street. People are free to worship as they choose, but that doesn't mean you can come into my neighborhood and trumpet your radical political agenda from the pulpit.

If I'm for gay marriage, and it's legal in my state, I guarantee I'll bring a civil rights suit against any pastor who refuses to perform same-gender marriages because he insists on hewing to his narrow Bible-thumping theology. While I'm at it, I'll get a group together and picket his church -- not to deny anybody his right to worship whatever God he wants. I totally believe in freedom of religion. But I'm talking about my civil rights here, and having a bigot in my town is aesthetically offensive.

By the same token, if I believe that the protection of women's hard-won equality in the U.S. is a cultural imperative, I'm not sure the First Baptist Church of Lake Forest Saddleback Church should continue to operate with impunity, and with tax-exempt status to boot, until Rick Warren answers some questions about his denomination's refusal to allow women into the pulpit. Marginalizing any protected group in that manner is completely un-American. No one has the right to use the First Amendment as a shield for unpatriotic behavior.

What may make these hypothetical examples seem a bit far-fetched is that they're about what some mosque critics would call established American faiths -- even though Islam predates Protestantism by almost 900 years and Mormonism by 1200. Muslims comprise a fifth of the world's population. Perhaps five million live in the U.S.

Newt Gingrich may think he can help pick up a few House and Senate seats and boost his presidential chances by comparing them all to Nazis. But should he and the rest of the GOP succeed in driving Imam Rauf out of town, you just watch. The precedent will be used in unanticipated ways against other faiths and denominations that become nationally or locally non-PC -- maybe even yours. That's how politics works, as Gingrich learned after destroying Speaker Jim Wright only to be destroyed in return. Chevy Chase said it well: The Hindus speak of karma (though that doesn't mean I have to put up with their smelly sacred cows).

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