David Bromwich, writing on Huffpo about the mosque near Ground Zero, explores American political tradition before focusing on two unlikely heirs of the tolerant spirit:
The language of the American founders contains not one word about sensitivity. "As to religion," wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, "I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith." But did Paine and others mean to extend such toleration to Muslims? They did, and they said they did. The question was openly debated whether religious liberty ought to be extended to such outliers as Catholics, Muslims and Jews. In the debate on the Constitution, for example, in the North Carolina convention, on July 30, 1788, Henry Abbot wondered if there were not considerable danger in granting a federal government the power to make treaties. Could not a treaty be made "engaging with foreign powers to adopt the Roman catholic religion in the United States, which would prevent people from worshiping God according to their own consciences." Abbot pursued his anxious challenge:The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there be no religious tests required, Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the Senate and Representatives might all be Pagans.
A conclusive reply to Abbot was given by James Iredell:How is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always in the right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened.
...American Christians in 2010 (if they are white) cannot easily call on memories of persecution to support a commitment to toleration. Even Catholics, who now have six judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Jews, who have three judges, may find that such fears hardly seem to apply in America. Yet a lively horror of persecution by Americans, thinking about America itself, seems a moral necessity for those who have to imagine ills that have never befallen them. And we all turn unimaginative -- and therefore morally lazy -- when the tracks of a prejudice favor our fortunes for long enough. We can truly secure ourselves against persecution only by binding ourselves against the privilege of being persecutors.
...It has been said that liberty is a political good that is easier to win than to maintain; that the habits necessary for its maintenance are easier to unlearn than to learn. To judge by events of the last three months, we have gone a long way toward unlearning the habits of religious freedom. Yet at this moment two Americans in public life have had the nerve and sense to remind us of the simplicity of the principle. Michael Bloomberg said in a radio address in June:If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship, they should do it, and we shouldn't be in the business of picking which religions can and which religions can't. I think it's fair to say if somebody was going to try to on that piece of property, build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. And the fact of the matter is that Muslims have a right to do it too.
...Ron Paul said in a statement of August 20:The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer.
The comparison is worthy of Paine -- and yields not a pious inch to the new apologists for prejudice. There is hope in the fearlessness of Bloomberg and Paul, a hope that derives from their common source. Nothing that any crowd can offer is better than the unhallowed liberty of life itself.