Religious Bias In New York

The big thing in the news right now is the debate on the Islamic center in lower Manhattan.  I have to say that I’ve been struggling for a few days with what to say on this topic, but too much has been going on to not say anything.  After all, if I write a blog for an online magazine for spiritual seekers, it’s kind of hard not to comment on an issue that focuses so much on faith.

I do have to say that my first response to this issue was not as of a spiritual seeker, not as someone who is devoting his life to religious life, but as someone who is an American.  It was hard for me to not see this as a freedom of religion issue.  While I do understand the arguments by some who are against this project—those of course who are not obviously using the issue to stoke fear for their own political gain by calling us down to our lowest common denominator instead of up to our highest values—I would still have to argue that the Bill of Rights does not exist because it assumed that people of different faith traditions would usually see eye-to-eye, it exists because our history reminds us that many people wouldn’t.

Know_NothingIt’s a history I wish some Catholic politicians would remember before they decide to offer a full-throated support against the project.  In the 1840s and 50s, there existed a political movement in the City of New York known as, ironically, the Know Nothings.  While their name may sound more descriptive today of the quality of their arguments, it actually is derived from the response its members would give when questioned about their sometimes violent activities, “I know nothing.”  Their main organizing principle was to organize against a faith tradition that was seen to be outside of the mainstream and therefore a threat to the republic.  Their argument was that members of this faith tradition, in addition to being different from the mainstream, were actually agents of a nefarious foreign power.  Which faith tradition were the Know Nothings against?  Roman Catholicism.  Which foreign power did they see as threatening to America?  The Pope.

Of course, there are some who argue against the appropriateness of the project are not acting from a place of bigotry nor are they suggesting that the community who is building the Islamic center does not have the right to proceed.  There are also many voices who are looking to be legitimate brokers of peace who suggest that the site should be moved in the name of calming fears and diffusing a volatile situation.  But while the desire to see if a “middle” solution can be found is laudable, I cannot help but feel that by suggesting that having an Islamic Center near Ground Zero is inappropriate, we are by default saying that all of Islam was responsible for what happened on 9-11.  I cannot help but feel that we are saying that the actions of an extreme minority are therefore representative of an entire faith tradition.  And as someone who is studying for the priesthood but also had to sit through yet another round of clergy abuse headlines a few months ago, I’m not sure that it’s a standard I would want applied to anybody.

There are well meaning people on all sides of this issue.  It does have to be noted that there are also some people who are less than well meaning, people who have distorted the truth for their own personal aggrandizement, political gain, what have you… and that list includes some Catholic politicians.  But at the end of the day, the same rights of religious freedom that protect different faiths also happen to protect ours.  And if we are going to form a more peaceful world, the kind of world the people behind the Islamic Center have repeatedly said they wish to further with their new center, it is going to have to be grounded in a place where the rights of all are respected.