Let’s quickly make a distinction about the word “perfect” above: I don’t mean “good politics,” so much as “politics untainted by any element of government.” The Ground Zero Mosque—located two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, and therefore separated from that hallowed ground only by the Ground Zero Chinese Takeout Place, the Ground Zero Strip Club and the Ground Zero Dunkin’ Donuts—will be built on private property. No governing body, from the City of New York City to the executive branch of the United States, can actually stop it. Yet politicians across the country have announced their opposition to its construction as if they could do something about it. One suspects that it’s precisely because they can’t.
From a governmental standpoint, the Ground Zero Mosque is a complete nonissue. The Constitution, which you may remember from people yelling outside the post office, pretty much says you can build a house of worship wherever you want. Even if all of the manifestly stupid analogies* put forth by the mosque’s opponents were convincing, we’d have nothing to do with our conviction. Short of repealing the First Amendment, every elected official in the country acting in concert could not legally stop that mosque.
Hence the beauty: officeholders and candidates can say whatever they want about it without any danger of having to act on their words. The Ground Zero Mosque is perfect politics, the court of public opinion separated entirely from governance. Disappointingly, our national discourse has risen to the bait.
A spokesman for Harry Reid captured the magic of the issue after the Majority Leader announced his opposition. “The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” Jim Manley told the Times. “Senator Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else.” One gets the feeling that A) Harry Reid would bet against his mother in a cockfight if it looked like she was going to lose, and B) he’s working with some new definition of the word “respect.” Harry Reid respects the First Amendment, in that he is legally bound to obey it and is therefore free to throw it under the bus in public statements.
Reid is looking at an increasingly tough election in November, and he’s obviously trying to position himself as something other than a proxy for the President. Republican candidates across the country have seized on the Ground Zero Mosque as a means to run against Barack Obama in state elections. Thus does James Renacci, running for Ohio’s 16th District seat in the House, say that “It is very troubling to see President Obama again turning a deaf ear to the thoughts and concerns of a majority of Americans.”
Personally, I think it would be more troubling to see the President usurping the authority of municipal governments to block the construction of houses of worship. The GOP, however, is not currently concerned with constitutionally guaranteed rights, separation of powers or even federal jurisdiction. They’re concerned with “a majority of Americans”—specifically how majorities of Americans might be induced to vote for people with R’s next to their names in November.
That would be a gross sacrifice of principle were there any principles at stake. But the issue of the Ground Zero Mosque has already been decided, and all that’s left now is to argue about it. From a political standpoint, there’s no reason not to come out against it. There’s no danger of actually infringing on anybody’s religious liberty, since everyone agrees that nothing can be done. Worst case scenario, you offend the ACLU members who weren’t going to vote for you anyway. Best case, you distinguish yourself in a Republican field dominated by Tea Partiers, immigration alarmists, Christian nationalists and other species of xenophobe.
Of course, the other worst case is that you pawn your integrity for a sound bite. Yesterday, Newt Gingrich went on Fox & Friends—he’s a friend—and said, “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” There’s a perfectly good reason for us to accept that, and Gingrich knows it. It’s the same reason he can go on TV and talk about how somebody should stop somebody else from building a particular kind of church. He knows he won’t have to do it, so he might as well insist.