Earlier today, Barack Obama responded to the avalanche of vitriol from the right that greeted his still earlier remarks about religious freedom in the United States of America. Some people are saying that Obama essentially “walked back” his earlier strong support for the idea that Muslims have the same constitutional right as any other faith tradition has in this country to build a mosque on private property in accordance with local laws and regulations.
Greg Sargent disagrees, and I think his argument is persuasive:
As you know, the Internets are alive with the claim that Obama has now walked back his support of Cordoba House, and I’ve gotten tons of emails telling me that my earlier praise of the speech is no longer operative.
But did he really walk back what he said last night? Here’s Obama’s quote from today that has created such a stir:
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.”
People today are saying that last night he “endorsed” the center, but now he won’t say whether he endorses it. But I’m not sure how serious a walkback this really is. Let’s go back to the core message of Obama’s speech:
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
Was yesterday’s speech an “endorsement” of the project? In one sense it certainly was. He voiced strong support for the group’s right to build it, and he went beyond that: He asserted that the group not only has the legal right to proceed, but that we should also welcome those with different faiths, not merely tolerate them because the law mandates it. And he declared that to do any less is un-American.
That last aspect of his speech, as I said below, is what made it powerful. Simply vouching for the group’s legal rights is a no-brainer. The crux of Obama’s message is that we should do more: We should welcome and respect people of all religious faiths.
Is that message diminished by what Obama has now said about the center? The “clarification” today would be a walkback if he had previously “endorsed” the project in the sense of declaring it a good idea. But he never “endorsed” it in that sense. Nor is it his place to do that.
Rather, Obama’s “endorsement” of the project consisted entirely of a declaration that now that the group has decided to proceed, American ideals demand that we welcome and respect such people in situations like these. He hasn’t backed off that core assertion. Nor is it contradicted by a refusal to comment directly on the “wisdom” of the project itself.
Darren Hutchinson has similar thoughts:
Obama endorsed the constitutional rights of individuals who want to build a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center. The media, in an apparent desire for controversial headlines, reported that Obama supported building a mosque at ground zero.
Today, President Obama clarified his comments, emphasizing that he endorsed the rights of the mosque proponents and that he remained neutral regarding the wisdom of the project. This is an important distinction. Upholding the US Constitution is a duty of the President. Deciding local construction policy is not.
By way of illustrating the media’s disinclination to use accurate language in describing what, exactly, it was that Pres. Obama “endorsed,” here is the first paragraph of an article in the New York Times, written by Edward Wyatt, about Republican reaction to Obama’s original comments about the Islamic community center project:
Three leading Republicans reacted negatively to President Obama’s statements in favor of a mosque and Muslim community center whose construction has been proposed for a building near the site formerly occupied by the World Trade Center.
The article is titled “3 Republicans Criticize Obama’s Endorsement of Mosque.”
Obama did not “endorse” a “mosque.” He said that Muslims have the same right as any other religious group in America to build a place of worship (and in this case a community center that contains space for religious services) in the location of their choice, provided of course that the location of their choice is on private property and meets the requirements of local laws and ordinances regarding such construction. That is all he said. He did not say that this NYC Muslim group should build a place of worship and a community center in that particular location. He did not say that building a Muslim community center and place of worship two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center would “promote healing.” He did not say it would prevent healing, either. He said that Muslims have the same rights under the Constitution to practice their religion as Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or anyone else would have.
And he was absolutely, unequivocally, correct.