No recent controversy has so plainly revealed the hollow values of the American right than the effort to prevent the construction of a community center in Lower Manhattan because it will include a mosque. Arguments in opposition range from a professed concern for the sensitivities of the Sept. 11 victims’ families to a primitive battle cry against Islam — but what they all share is an arrant disregard for our country’s founding principles.

The impulse to violate the First Amendment rights of Muslims — as Muslims! — is so blatantly wrong and so radical, in the worst sense, that it almost defies outrage. Until now, nobody in a position of responsibility has sought to deny basic religious liberty to any group whose practices did not somehow trespass the law. Despite disagreements around the borders of religious freedom, the nation shared a consensus in favor of the concept — for everyone, with no exceptions.

It is a consensus that dates back to the first days following the Revolution, when George Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., guaranteeing the new republic’s commitment to universal tolerance. The first president explained in that historic letter why that guarantee could only be categorical and indivisible:

“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

In short, the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, to those of any faith or no faith, belongs to all the people. Liberty is not bestowed on Muslims or Hindus or Jews by Christians, and cannot be rescinded from any group by another. Certainly, it is not subject to revocation by any seedy demagogue.

But now, the former speaker of the House and a former Republican vice presidential candidate, both of whom may well run for president in the next election, are campaigning against “the 9/11 mosque.” Although the building is to be constructed on private property, both Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin seem to believe that the state should forbid construction of a mosque there.

According to Palin, this project represents a threatened “stab” in the “heart” for every American — and that’s all she said. The former Alaska governor’s remarks frequently lack any semblance of reason or logic. This time, her fumbling diction, instructing “peace-loving” Muslims to “refudiate” the mosque, provided such amusement that the ominous subtext of the message was almost ignored — but it couldn’t have been clearer.

Beneath her references to healing and understanding, Palin let every Muslim in America know that their religion, its edifices and symbols, offends their fellow Americans. She was saying that Islam doesn’t share equal status with other faiths. She was warning the Muslim community against any assertion of those rights.

Characteristically, Gingrich went further, using aggressive language and false insinuation. Without any shred of evidence, he denounced the moderate Muslims developing the community center as “hostile to our civilization.” Instead of building where they live, in New York City, he urged them to try to build a church or a synagogue “in Saudi Arabia.”

By uttering those words, the old bully proved what liberals and moderates have often noticed about the religious right — namely, the troubling resemblance between our homegrown ultras and the foreign extremists who have attacked us. Only when the Saudis permit full religious freedom to Christians and Jews, Gingrich suggested, should we do likewise to Muslims. So he recommends that we trash the Bill of Rights and mimic the practices of foreign despots.

At the very least, the mosque debate should dispel any sense that “conservatives” like these are the strict and true defenders of the Constitution they often claim to be. These politicians — along with the mob they are stirring — recklessly endanger the most sacred American traditions.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2010

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