Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Cordoba House Mosque and Religious Tolerance

Robert Weissberg

A July 24, 2010 Wall Street Journal article reported how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended constructing a mosque (to be called Cordoba House) near Ground Zero with “This city was built on openness and tolerance and we’re not walking away from it.” The Mayor’s comments seem so obvious, so respectable that only a narrow-minded political extremist could object. Or so it would seem. After all, what decent person could oppose “tolerance” in a city built on openness? The WSJ certainly did not quibble and, as far as I can tell, this “tolerance demands the mosque be built” dominates elite “educated” opinion. Only noisy yahoos in cheap tee-shirts object.

Whatever Bloomberg’s merits as a mayor, however, his statement betrays a profound misunderstanding of how “tolerance” applies to permitting the mosque. Like so many similarly ill-informed “experts,”Bloomberg erroneously conflates “tolerance” with permissive approval. This might be called the MasterCard version of tolerance: you cannot be turned down! The Mayor, and others who dread the label “intolerant” when it comes to placating Muslims need a good history lesson and I will happily provide it.

Some Background. The concept “tolerance” essentially emerged in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries as a solution to religious strife. It is hard for us today to even imagine that era’s brutality. To take but one example, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, from August to October of 1572, saw Catholics enthusiastically murder Huguenots (French Protestants, many of whom where wealthy) by the thousands, including entire families. Estimates range from 30,000 to maybe 100,000 killed, and contemporary accounts describe rivers so overflowing with rotting corpses that fish became inedible. Pope Gregory, so enraptured by this bloody religious fervor, ordered Rome’s church bells rung for an entire day while special commemorative medals honored the occasion. Huguenots meanwhile returned the barbarism and cruelly butchered thousands ofCatholics . Peace eventually returned, but only as a truce--in 1685 violent prosecution of the Huguenots began anew, and with similar brutal carnage. And it got worse.

Out of this relentless, horrific carnage came the concept of religious tolerance which eventually just became “tolerance.” A long complicated intellectual history lies here, but let me outline just what this tolerance meant and how it was to be applied.

First, tolerance did not mean approval. It meant accepting something despite its noxious qualities. So, for Protestants to tolerate Catholics, they could rave and rant about Popery, the Church’s corruption and on and on but—and here’s the key point—they would accept the presence ofCatholics despite these flaws. Thus, to say that one tolerates Muslims implies that one has reservations about the religion but these misgivings stop short of exterminating them. Unqualified appreciation of Islam is not tolerance since there is no negative element. This may not seem like much in today’s world where leaders unabashedly flatter every divergent group, from homosexuals to atheists, but this “suffer them in despite of their sins” qualification encouraged tranquility when fanatic vs. fanatic religious disputes brought civil war where winners slaughtered the losers.

Second, tolerance largely applied to matters of faith, not behavior. This was a practical concession to the impossibility of determining inner beliefs. To insist that there was only a single true faith, and that it had to heartfelt, not just conveniently mouthed, only invited violent persecution. Recall the Spanish Inquisition—using torture to separate authenticCatholics from unbelievers masquerading as true believers. Tolerance was never applied to behavior and impermissible religious behaviors abounded. Religions that threatened the public order or preached immoral doctrines were legally banned. John Locke (1632-1704) used the example of a church that practiced human sacrifice. A “religiously tolerant society” was thus characterized but multiple faiths, not necessarily multiple religious practices or churches.

Third, even on matters of belief, certain expressed beliefs were still considered dangerous and those who held these beliefs could be treated harshly. Locke, who advocated the most inclusive tolerance of his day, nevertheless rejected extending full citizenship rights to Catholics, Jews, among several other religions and especially atheists. Their dogmas subverted English society, in his estimation. Unitarians, for example, rejected oaths but the law required oaths so a Unitarian could not be trusted if sworn in as a trial witness or juror.Catholics were even more dangerous given their allegiance to the Pope, an anti-English foreign power in Locke’s day.

Finally, the claim for tolerance was not to be granted as a matter of right. One could not just show up, announce one’s peculiar views, and then unilaterally demand acceptance since “who wants an intolerant society”? This was to be decided case-by-case and was hardly simple but it had to be settled. An English Catholic, for example, might gain acceptance by renouncing the Pope’s political authority and proclaiming unqualified allegiance to England.

Does this mean that Cordoba House should be banned? Nothing of the sort. The lessons of religious tolerance, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s casual expertise, indicate that it is an open question and, forbidding construction would not automatically signal intolerance. Nobody is advocating preventing anybody from believing in Islam let alone interrogating Muslims on their inner thoughts. America is a religiously tolerance society since it permits a huge variety of religious beliefs to flourish unhindered. But, as we suggest, a huge gap separates this historically anchored version of tolerance and acceding to whatever a religious group demands. When the debate shifts from personal beliefs to religious practices, matters are entirely different.

Deciding whether to permit religious behavior, not belief, occurs regularly, almost always in court cases and this may help explain its obscurity. Decisions can get messy and it is impossible to extract simple standards. For example, the Code of Federal Regulations grants the Native American Church the right to use peyote, a hallucinogenic DEA Schedule I controlled substance, for “bona fide ceremonial use.” But, five states are more generous and permit peyote to be used in any religious ceremony, so one does not have to be a Native American Church member to experience its effects. Equally nightmarish is the issue of what, exactly, is a “church” and whether it deserves tax exempt status. The Church of Scientology that began in the early fifties has waged a long war with the IRS over its alleged religious character, a battle complicated by Scientology’s extensive money-making operations and accusations that it is a cult, not a religious faith. A perennial issue is the fine line between “a church” and a political organization. Religious organizations are permitted to engage in some politicking, but this murky line is easily crossed though the IRS often turns a blind eye to infractions.

The lessons for permitting the Cordoba House Mosque near Ground Zero should be clear. Its existence cannot, repeat, cannot be justified on “religious tolerance.” The Muslim faith, yes, but a building and behaviors that may occur there do not automatically qualify for tolerance. A more thorough inquiry is necessary, no different in principle from scrutinizing the use of peyote in religious ceremonies. One might legitimately inquire, for example, of the balance between purely religious prayer and political proselytizing or whether the religious messages contravene US law. There are also financial issues, for example, the distribution oftax exempt donations to groups with possible terrorist ties. To be sure, such proselytizing or anti-American sermons may be First Amendment protected, but constitutional legality hardly certifies a religion. Conceivably, public scrutiny might encourage Cordoba House to alter its legal status from a religious organization to a pro-Arab advocacy group. And few would object to such an organization renting office space anywhere in the city.

In sum, opponents of the mosque near ground zero are not intolerant of religion, let alone bigots even if they have nasty things to say about Islam. Remember, religious tolerance, properly understood, means accepting a faith despite certain objectionable features. Nor can Muslims unilaterally demand “acceptance” for their behaviors since “America is built on religious tolerance.” The concept of “tolerance” emerged after centuries of bloody religious strife and we should treat it as a valuable heirloom that helped quell this carnage, not a word synonymous with facile appeasement so as to avoid charges of narrow-mindedness. Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent being Bad Students, Not Bad Schools: How both the Right and the Left have American education wrong. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.

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