Leave it alone

The mosque. Must I get involved in this, too?

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Did you know that twenty percent of Americans now believe that the president is Muslim? The polling took place just before he first spoke about the mosque last week. Do the remaining eighty percent correctly identify Obama as a Christian? Hardly. “The number of people who correctly identify Obama as a Christian has dropped to 34 precent, down from nearly half from when he took office,” according to today’s Washington Post.

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There are some sensible things being written about the Islamic community center, most of it written about the people who are trying to build the center and the people who live and work around where the center would open – the people who just want to be left alone. Here’s are links to articles in this week’s New Yorker and today’s Washington Post about it. Turns out those people are human beings – Americans, even, if I may be so bold.

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A new Time-SRBI poll found that 61 percent of Americans oppose building the center. Nearly twice as many people said the center, and the mosque inside it, would be an insult to Sept. 11 victims than said it would be a symbol of religious tolerance.

Washington Post, Aug. 19, 2010, p. A4

The pollster put its participants on the horns of a false dilemma. The center is neither an insult to victims nor a symbol of religious tolerance. It is many other things, though, and mainly to those who intend to use it or who live or work around it. The pollster’s false dilemma reminds me of Stephen Douglas’s miscegenation argument, which Lincoln ably characterized in his response to it: “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”

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Must the president get involved in this, too? Can’t he just say, “They have the right to build it.  It’s not my place to say whether or not they should; those parties in interest are defined by New York City ordinance.  It’s my place – and the place of all Americans – to defend that decision on the grounds of the First Amendment and of religious toleration.”

Can’t we just leave the Islamic community center, the people that will use it or will live or work around it – leave the entire local legal process involved in approving it – alone?

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There is no way to decide these questions [placing moral positions at odds with one another] other than by reference to some system of moral or ethical principles about which people can and do disagree. Because we disagree, we put such issues to a vote and, where the Constitution does not speak, the majority morality prevails.

– Robert Bork, The Tempting of America, p. 259.

Indeed, Madison, like Jefferson, argued . . . that a majority may do only those things “that could be rightfully done by the unanimous concurrence of the members.” Thus it is not simply the will of the majority that “rightfully” rules in a democracy, but the rational will of the majority. In the same vein, Jefferson wrote that “[i]ndependence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Thus, it is clear that Madison and Jefferson viewed the people as a moral entity, not simply as a collection of discrete value-positing individuals. The positivism of both Bork and Rehnquist is predicated on a kind of moral relativism that ultimately leads to nihilism.

– Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, p. xxix

Bork’s argument for majority vote as a substitute for an unachievable moral consensus – his “majority morality” – is precisely Stephen Douglas’s argument for Popular Sovereignty. By allowing a majority vote to determine whether each new territory would permit slavery, the United States government through Popular Sovereignty treated its citizens not as a “moral entity” but “as a collection of discrete value-positing individuals.” The result was Bleeding Kansas.

The nub of the mosque issue is the central issue of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln rejected Douglas’s – and Bork’s – notion that America cannot, as a society and through reason and difficulty, rediscover her first principles in the Declaration of Independence that animate the Constitution. As our Bill of Rights affirms, some things – like the Islamic community center and the president’s religion – are not a matter of majority opinion or vote.

Posted August 19, 2010.