It has been both fascinating and disturbing to listen to public and private discussions about the Park51 Islamic Center to be constructed in Manhattan. At several periods in the history of the United States a virulent xenophobia has manifested itself. Many of the persons of European descent who have spoken against the Cordoba project likely have forebears who themselves suffered more or less intensely from this distrust and fear of the other, the stranger, the outsider as they arrived in this land. That fear was based on differences of religion, of customs, of ethnicity, of look, of cultures and traditions, just as it is in the present moment.
I have always believed strongly that one of the worst motivators for human action is fear. Even hatred, where and when it actually exists, has the benefit often of focusing on a target. Fear casts a wider net, reacting without deep rational thought to stimuli near and far. Its reaction is – to use an image I find distasteful in every way – more like that of a shotgun than a rifle. Fear strikes out at all and everything that reminds it in any way of the root of what is feared. And ‘what is feared’ may be difficult for the persons involved even to bring to speech. It is that visceral – and that primitive. Hence while attention is marked on Manhattan in the present case, mosques and mosque sites elsewhere suffer violence or the threats of violence also, and a New York cab driver undergoes an attack from a passenger because he admitted his faith.
The founder of Christianity, whose name (it seems reasonable to assume) should often be invoked by his followers, is quoted in the gospel as saying, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” In that particular case, Jesus indicated that trust was needed so that healing might be possible and real. This is still true.
Civilly, we simply cannot have it both ways. Either there is freedom of religion in the United States of America for all, or there will ultimately be such freedom for none. The Christian churches, the Jewish people in the USA, those who embrace the Islamic faith here (and many others) hold to the importance and indeed the vital nature of this freedom. The Roman Catholic Church, in the decree Dignitatis humanae at the second Vatican Council a half-century ago, affirmed religious freedom. In part, the Council said in that document: “[T]he right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” (#2).
The right to religious freedom is founded on the very fact of our common humanity and its innate dignity. It is so fundamental a right that it must be recognized at the level of constitutional law and accepted as a civil right.
If we tamper with all this – in the present case by vitriolic and emotion-based response to the planned center in Manhattan – we are tampering with the foundation stones on which an ordered society, particularly a democratic society, is founded.
We need to think twice, then a third time, and if we find that we are acting out of fear – any of us – then we must stand down.