Via Greg Sargent:
Obama didn't just stand up for the legal right of the group to build the Islamic center. He voiced powerful support for their moral right to do so as well, casting it as central to American identity. This is a critical point, and it goes to the the essence of why his speech was so commendable.
Many opponents of the project have been employing a clever little dodge. They say they don't question the group's legal right to build it under the Constitution. Rather, they say, they're merely criticizing the group's decision to do so, on the grounds that it's insensitive to 9/11 families and will undercut the project's goal of reconciliation. The group has the right to build the center, runs this argument, but they are wrong to exercise it. In response, Obama could have merely cast this dispute as a Constitutional issue, talked about how important it is to hew to that hallowed document, and moved on.
But Obama went much further than that. He asserted that we must "welcome" and "respect" those of other faiths, suggesting that the group behind the center deserves the same, and said flat out that anything less is un-American:
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.
Obama's core declaration here is as simple and clear a statement about what's really at stake in this fight as one could have asked for. Obama argued that an "unshakable" devotion to the notion that all faiths are "welcome" is "essential to who we are," thus casting this as a larger argument over the bedrock moral principles that are the foundation of American identity.
Obama issued this statement in the full knowledge that his opponents have been itching for him to wade into this battle. The right is engaged in a concerted effort to make it politically toxic to stand up for the rights of Muslims -- and to simultaneously insinuate that Obama is on "their" side, and not on ours. This dispute fits the bill perfectly. It's the stuff of Liz Cheney's dreams. Polls show overwhelming opposition to the project, and as Glenn Greenwald notes, there would have been no political downside to sidestepping this morass.
Yet Obama entered the fray anyway, in dramatic fashion, asserting that our identy rests on "our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us." Crucially, Obama also cast support for the religious freedom of Muslim Americans as key to winning the battle with Al Qaeda, even as he hailed the service of Muslim Americans in our military. In so doing, Obama directly confronted the demagoguery at the core of much of the opposition to this project.
Republicans are reportedly gleeful that Obama entered this dispute. Maybe they're right to be gleeful: Obama's entry will only further stoke passions and ensure that the battle continues, perhaps to his political detriment. But in another sense, this couldn't have come at a better time for Obama. His core supporters, frustrated, were badly in need of a display of presidential spine. They got one.
Ultimately, though, Obama's speech transcends the politics of the moment, and will go down as a defining and perhaps even a breakthrough performance. Obama recognized that this dispute is a seminal one that goes to the core of our running argument about pluralism and minority rights and to the core of who we are. He understood that the gravity of the moment required an equally large and momentous response. And he delivered.
Update: Is there any difference between what Obama said above and what he says here?
Update: Republican Strategist Mark McKinnon praises President Obama's comments on the mosque. (Via The Daily Beast)
Speaking out on the proposed mosque at ground zero may be politically unpopular or perhaps costly in the short term, but in the end it makes him a president worthy of respect, says Mark McKinnon.
President Obama made the right call on the proposed mosque in New York City.
Of course he should have spoken out on this issue. And of course he should have done it now.
This is the job of presidents. To provide leadership on issues that tear at our moral fabric. To point the way when the winds of controversy whip in every direction.
It would have been politically safer for Obama to say nothing. This is a 30-70 issue in terms of support, so he had a lot to lose by speaking out. This was not a political play. This was a leadership play.
So why did he speak out?
I believe it’s possible he thought it was important and simply the right thing to do.
No question there are deep and emotional issues that cut on both sides of the argument. And both sides have strong merit to their cases.
But President Obama knows two important things: (1) Al Qaeda wants the world to believe that America is at war with Islam, and if an American president stands up in support of a mosque near the 9/11 site, then that narrative loses force; and (2) religious tolerance is the hallmark of American history and we can’t conveniently reject that heritage just because the issue may be emotional and painful.
George. W. Bush’s gifted speech writer Mike Gerson, as usual, weighs in eloquently:
“An enormously complex and emotional issue—but ultimately the right thing to do. A president is president for every citizen, including every Muslim citizen. Obama is correct that the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the best traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans. It is radicals who imagine an American war on Islam. But our conflict is with the radicals alone.”
And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lays out the case succinctly:
“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”
Nothing could or should block the building of this mosque. And any ongoing argument or controversy about it only deepens the pain and the stain left by terrorists. So President Obama did what leaders are supposed to do. He has used the bully pulpit of the American presidency to say, “This is the right thing to do. Let’s move on.” And in my view, exerting this kind of bold leadership, which in the short term may be very politically unpopular and perhaps costly, will, in the long-term, make Obama a candidate for a president worthy of respect for making a tough and necessary call.
America’s commitment to religious freedom and tolerance should not be conditional.