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A Muslim Community Center? Why Not?

Why Should Jews Care?

by Robin Podolsky with Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak,, September 7, 2010

(Page 7 of 8) Print version

In the context of a battle to display the Christian version of the Ten Commandments at the Texas Capitol and two Kentucky courthouses, Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the ACLJ said, "...even the Supreme Court admitted this is a Christian nation up until the 1930s."

There is a confluence with that view—which regards the Jews of the United States as being best off under the protection of benevolent Christians, although never free from the specter of anti-Semitism—and one that can only imagine the State of Israel in a beleaguered warlike state, never to realize the original Zionist dream of a nation that lives in the world like any other.

What is at stake
America is a unique kind of experiment. Not to overindulge in American exceptionalism, but every country has its particularities, and here is one of ours: we were not only founded through a constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion for all, the conquest of the Americas--carried out overtly as a Christian project and, therefore, in opposition to all indigenous religion--removed the ground for any organicist claim to the place for any of the Abrahamic faiths. This happened just as Europeans, reeling from centuries of bloody religious war between Christians and having rediscovered the virtues of scientific skepticism, were calling received certainties into question. The result was a country founded not only without a state religion but without any history of one.

This is why it is possible for observant Jews, Muslims and Christians to be equally at home here. This narrative is repellent to those who want to frame the US as a Christian nation. It is also inconvenient for those who wish to emphasize the nationalistic possibilities of Judaism based on the idea that this nation must always be, in some way, the territory of Christians on whose tolerance we must rely.

One of the many things at stake here is the soul and shape of America. Are we to be defined by our Constitution or by Plymouth and Jamestown? Those early colonies were indeed religious enterprises, founded by Puritans and Anglicans seeking religious freedom; but only for themselves to practice what they believed in, relieved of the pressure to co-exist with others. It is certainly no accident (and almost too ponderously ironic) that Pat Robertson, the man who wants us to know that Islam is no religion but an ideology of conquest, said on his website that, "we reclaim the holy covenant of 1607 (referring to the Jamestown colony in advance of a beach party planned to celebrate the colony's founding) and we reaffirm that America "is dedicated to our Lord Jesus Christ, for His glory and for His purpose...the Gospel will go out…to the entire world."" (At the end Robertson quotes Jamestown's Reverend Robert Hunt.)

However, our Constitution really does forbid any government establishment of religion. Generations of interpreters have elucidated that principle to mean that the government doesn't get to play favorites, to treat one religion as more "real" than all the rest. It is that founding principle—even when it has been honored more in the breach—that has allowed Jews the exceptional opportunities that we have been blessed with in America. Well, that and the color line, especially since it was redrawn in the 20th century to include most of us who happen to be here. (It is easier to get ahead when the lowest rung on the ladder is always already taken.)

Video interviews of participants in Glen Beck's capitol rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech indicate that Reverend Hagee's enemies list--Muslims, the President, people who would impose controls on the economy but not on their neighbor's personal lives--is fairly common. Muslims, like gays and immigrants are understood as having taken away an America that the Tea Partiers, who are mostly white, Christian and relatively well-off, are determined to "take back."

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So. The folks who believe that they are losing America are angry with the President. Some are angry because he is a Black man who appears to be smarter than most people and can't be bothered to conceal the fact. Some are angry because he is teaching his children to savor arugula with their Five Guys burgers. Many are angry precisely to the extent that he is keeping his campaign promise to reform healthcare and other aspects of the economy in favor of the middle classes, which means government regulation of the marketplace to curb dishonest and predatory practices, to reward responsible entrepreneurs including those who invest in research and development, to spur employment and to monitor working conditions for health, safety and transparency.

As has been pointed often enough, it is not easy to build a mass movement against policies that directly benefit the people you are trying to organize. Thomas Frank in What's The Matter With Kansas put his finger on it. People who don't want to talk economic facts resort to culture wars. They need an enemy around which to unite.

According to a new Pew Research Poll: nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009. The proportion who correctly say he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent. In a separate poll by Time magazine/ABT SRBI conducted Monday and Tuesday — after Obama's comments about the mosque — 24 percent said they think he is Muslim, 47 percent said they think he is Christian and 24 percent didn't know or didn't respond. In addition, 61 percent opposed building the Muslim center near the Trade Center site and 26 percent said they favor it.

The Pew poll found that about three in 10 of Obama's fiercest political rivals, Republicans and conservatives, say he is a Muslim. That is up significantly from last year and far higher than the share of Democrats and liberals who say so. But even among his supporters, the number saying he is a Christian has fallen since 2009, with just 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats saying he is Christian.

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