Obama and the Mosque

by John Fea, Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania (originally published at The Way of Improvement Leads Home)

It becomes a sad day in the United States when a president finds himself in political hot water for defending the Constitution. The Founding Fathers would not be happy.

On January 20, 2009 Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. On that day (actually it was a day later since John Roberts messed up the oath) he put his hand on a Bible and said:

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The Constitution says nothing about whether or not Muslims have the right to build a cultural center near the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. But it does make some rather definitive statements about religious freedom. The First Amendment to the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

When the Founding Fathers thought about religious freedom they often had Muslims in mind. Thomas Jefferson made sure that Muslims were protected under the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, a document that influenced the writers of the First Amendment.

George Washington declared that “the bosom of America” was open to “receive…the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges” whether they be “Mohometans (Muslims), Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and devout Christian, implied that Islam would be taught in public schools in the United States when he wrote: “I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”

When earlier this month Barack Obama told a group of Muslim-Americans that Muslims “have a right to practice their religion like anyone in else in this country and that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property…” he was defending the Constitution and acting in accordance with the views of the Founding Fathers.

Very few of the opponents of the Muslim community center near Ground Zero would argue with anything of this. They will admit that the New York Muslim community has a Constitutional right to build their facility.

Instead, the opposition has been focused on the wisdom of the decision to build this community center so close to the site of the tragic events of 9-11-2001. It would seem that a religious group concerned about interfaith dialogue and its image among the American people would think twice before building a place of worship near such hallowed ground.
Yet, as insensitive as the decision to build may appear to ordinary Americans, Obama was correct. Defending the Constitution is what presidents are supposed to do.

As expected, Obama has gotten into political trouble for this comment. Democrats facing mid-term elections are distancing themselves from his remarks. More people think Obama is a Muslim today than they did a year ago. All because he decided to publicly defend the Constitution.

I say shame on Obama’s political opponents for using the president’s remarks as a political weapon. Instead of condemning him for what he said, they should be returning to their home districts and teaching their constituencies about the meaning of the First Amendment and, subsequently, the meaning of America.

These so-called defenders of interpreting the Constitution literally and in accordance with the wishes of the Founders have a lot to learn about placing historic American values over American politics.



John Fea said...

Bob: Thanks for posting this. Although my name is spelled FEA, not "FEE."

Bob Robinson said...

Sorry 'bout that. I bet you get that all the time. It's like people thinking my last name is Robertson. It's changed!

Anonymous said...

"It would seem that a religious group concerned about interfaith dialogue and its image among the American people would think twice before building a place of worship near such hallowed ground."

John - while I agree with the overall point you make here, I question the wisdom of any Christian who chooses to use the nationalist rhetoric of 'hallowed ground' when referring specifically to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I am curious, if we Christians are going to pick and choose which grounds are holy and which are not, by what criteria do we determine this?

In my view, the decision to move forward with the building plans for Park51 is and will be a difficult, but significant step toward the goal of reconciliation between American extremists/radicals and moderate Muslims.

John Fea said...

Nate: You are correct. I don't like the use of "hallowed" ground either. I probably just used that as a gesture to my readers who were not Christians.

Rob said...

I agree, they do have the Constitutional right. The president made his remarks clearly and the next day (with a new audience) suggested that this might not be a great idea--as some healing and other issues are still in progress.

I am constantly asking myself if Muslims might approve a Christian church in Mecca? If Christians wanted to build a large church in Saudi Arabia, how would that be welcome? Maybe some cultural efforts of exchange would be good for both!

caucazhin said...

Obama should just shut his lying mouth, hes a deceiver of the 1st degree...He pretends hes a Christian/Muslim and while seriously considering "hate speech" legislation and gay marriage not just legally but theologically.
I just love the way he used that heretic Rick Warren to garner evangelical votes during the election..they both serve satan