Nothing tests a president like standing up against a wave of fear and prejudice, even at potentially great cost to his own party and prospects. That is what Lyndon Baines Johnson did when he signed the civil rights acts he knew would forfeit the South to the Republicans for a generation or more.

And that is what Barack Obama has done by defending the right of American Muslims to build a community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan.

Politicians assume risk reluctantly and sometimes hesitantly. Often they must be forced by events to choose principle over expediency. Contemporary commentators carp and nitpick, but history rewards such choices — and punishes those who make them necessary.

In Johnson’s case, the judgment of time has imbued his decision on civil rights with an aura of wisdom that mitigates his terrible escalation of the war in Vietnam. His prediction that the Republicans would seek white votes by exploiting racial themes was vindicated by Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” — an electoral success that left an indelible stain on Nixon and his party.

For Obama, the decision to speak out on the Cordoba House project was inevitable because his political opponents have behaved so irresponsibly. Republican leaders, including top congressional figures and aspiring presidential candidates, have stigmatized Muslim Americans and their faith in a manner that brings shame on us before the world and alienates our allies in the struggle against extremist violence.

Facing a loyal audience of Muslims at a White House dinner celebrating the end of Ramadan, he was obliged to uphold the values of the Founders. He was not required to endorse the location of the Cordoba House project, two blocks north of Ground Zero, which has abraded the sensitivities of some Sept. 11 family members. He had only to declare, as he did, that in America Muslims enjoy all the same rights as those of every other faith or no faith.

As the son of a Kenyan Muslim and with an Arabic middle name, Obama obviously carries a heavy burden in this confrontation with opportunists and bigots. It would be difficult for any president to stare down opponents who are riding high on the current wave of anger and paranoia directed at a religious minority. It is far more difficult for this president, who has been subjected to scurrilous media campaigns questioning his own faith and even his citizenship.

Those hard circumstances emphasize his courage — and the cowardice of those who sidle away or remain silent now. The deepest responsibility falls upon George W. Bush, who could silence the worst excesses of his fellow Republicans and conservatives with a simple statement backing his successor. He knows that Obama is doing the right and lonely thing. His duty is clear, and he too must choose: either redemption or ignominy.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2010

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