Seeing in Color

Race, prejudice, and the hidden thoughts that shape our politics.

Of Mosques and Small Government

The controversy over a mosque in lower Manhattan

It’s never hard to find examples of politicians contradicting themselves. In mild cases, pols may make nuanced adjustments to their policy positions—as when candidates tack toward the political center to win general elections once they’ve proven their ideological bona fides to primary voters. When politicians need to put more distance between themselves and something they used to believe, they may characterize their views as having “evolved”—a euphemism for “changed” suggesting that, in the words of The Dude, “new [information] has come to light.”

Sometimes, political self-contradiction is blatant. Recall Hillary Clinton insisting that the renegade primaries in Florida and Michigan, where she had previously agreed not to campaign, be counted toward the Democratic presidential nomination. It had become clear that she would need her victories in those states to beat Barack Obama. For his part, Mr. Obama broke his pledge to rely on public financing in the general election after witnessing the stunning success of his private fundraising machine. And we mustn’t forget Mitt Romney’s opposition to the Democrats' health care reform plan, a version of the which he had previously championed as Governor of Massachusetts. His qualms surfaced only after hostility to Obamacare became a political requirement for Republicans.

But perhaps no recent event better illustrates the ability of politicians to contradict their principles than the controversy over the construction of a large mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York City. The plan to establish the Park51 center in a 13-story building just two blocks from the site of the Twin Towers has created a firestorm. Some, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, see in the center a powerful symbol of tolerance and a repudiation of the 9/11 attackers’ hateful ideology. For others, the very idea of creating a center of Muslim culture and worship so close to the scene of the crime is an affront to those who died that day. For my part, I agree with Mayor Bloomberg, and think it’s wrong to hold a religion comprising 22% of the world’s inhabitants responsible for actions condemned by the vast majority of it’s adherents. But what I find most interesting, and disappointing, is that the mosque’s loudest and most vitriolic opponents are small-government conservatives.

Those opposed to government restrictions on personal freedom, whether they call themselves libertarians, Tea Partiers, or conservatives, lay claim to a political philosophy that deserves respect. This philosophy identifies the individual as the proper unit of moral and political concern. Accordingly, we are urged to think in terms of persons—not social categories, like race or religion. Individual freedom, as codified in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, is paramount, and we are advised to guard against the state’s tendency to violate individual freedoms for the sake of “the greater good.” Given this, small-government conservatives must be leading the charge in defense of the Ground Zero mosque, right? Wrong.

As it turns out, some of those who currently embrace small-government libertarianism most strongly—Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and former Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams, among many others—have positioned themselves as the Park51 center’s staunchest opponents. With the exception of Mr. Williams, prominent opponents of the mosque have avoided attributing their position to sheer anti-Muslim prejudice. Rather, in the tweeted words of Ms. Palin, building the mosque at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is insensitive to the feelings of many in "the heartland." Let’s set aside the fact that Palin’s statement accuses middle America of equating Muslims with terrorists. Regardless, this just isn’t the sort of argument that defenders of small-government, free markets, individual rights, and the Constitution ought to be making.

Here’s an analogy. It offends my sensibilities and, I’ll admit, scares me a little to think that anybody I meet during my next trip to Arizona might be carrying a concealed handgun without a permit, and I don’t think I’m unique in this respect. But would the average libertarian-minded conservative take my feelings as a substantive reason to repeal Arizona’s concealed carry law? Of course not. Instead, they would say that the Constitution protects individuals’ Second Amendment right to bear arms, and that this  trumps others’ negative reactions to the exercise of that right. Fair enough, I suppose. But consistency demands that hurt feelings cannot supersede the right of Muslims who, having legally purchased 45 Park Place in lower Manhattan, to establish a religious center there.

I should note that the right of Muslims to build the Park51 center is by no means lost on all small-government conservatives. None other than Tea Part standard-bearer Glenn Beck is on record as saying that mosque proponents have “the Constitution and the rule of law” on their side. I just wish more of his ideological compatriots would follow his lead.

 

Eric Knowles is an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at University of California at Irvine.

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