Sunday, August 15, 2010

Obama's Peaceable (and Sensible) Ground Zero Mosque Rhetoric

A bunch of folks, including the sometime/part-time governor of Alaska, have accused President Obama of being either A) wrong in his remarks about the “Ground Zero” mosque, or B) unclear or contradictory in his remarks. Neither of these accusations is true. In fact, Obama’s statements on this issue have been entirely correct morally and factually and also entirely consistent. I’d add that I think they are a great example of what “peaceful” rhetoric can be.

Obama said on Friday that Muslims, like anybody else in America, are completely free to practice religion in any way they see fit, as long as they do so within the context of the law. On Saturday, he pointed out that he had *not* said anything one way or the other about the “wisdom” of building this particular mosque, but simply that it was absolutely within the law to do so.

Would we want a president to say anything other than this? The entire purpose of having freedom of religion enshrined in the Bill of Rights is precisely to point out that it doesn’t make a bit of difference what anyone-- you, I, or even the president—thinks about someone else’s right to practice their religion. It’s not a matter of opinion or majority rule. You get to worship God (or not) the way you want to, particularly on your own property. No one, and I mean no one, can possibly offer an argument that says the government could or should interfere with the building of this mosque. At least, no one can offer an argument that would be consistent with well over two centuries of Constitutional law as well as the most basic tenets of the American form of government.

As to the “wisdom” of building the mosque, I ask again, do we really want a president weighing in on this, particularly if we grant (as I believe we must) that his opinion doesn’t matter in the least? Is ex-governor Palin actually suggesting that, were she in the Oval Office, she’d see fit to pass public judgment on whether she approved or not of how others were practicing their religion? Frankly, I could do without that.

I’d suggest that Obama has taken precisely the right approach to this: asserting the obvious right of those involved to build the mosque, while making it clear that he has no intention of weighing in on whether he “approves” on some more abstract, fuzzy level of the decision to build it. He’s making a point of not allowing himself to be drawn into a meaningless conflict. Would that more of us were able to show similar restraint. A great deal of our public discourse is predicated on the notion that you *must* have an opinion on an issue and it *must* not only be voiced, but voiced stridently and in a way that will tick off people with whom you might not agree.

Obama has chosen not to play that game, and it’s telling that precisely because of this, he’s catching hell from both ends of the political spectrum for the sin of being circumspect rather than rabid in his rhetoric. Peaceable rhetoric, oddly enough, can end up with a wider swath of the public getting their nose out of joint than can engaging in the sort of dimwitted, unctuous, and/or mean-spirited palavering that passes for public discourse these days (see: Beck, Glenn).

I hope that his doesn’t dissuade the president, or others who might find his example inspiring, from continuing to give peace a rhetorical chance.


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