THERE IS, in this country, an “essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom.’’ Indeed, “religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.’’ We know this because former Governor Mitt Romney reminded us of it when, during his presidential campaign, some fundamentalist Christians started raising objections to his Mormon faith.
Thus, one would expect Romney to stand against those who, seeking a “wedge’’ issue, are making a cause out of the plans for a mosque to be built in Lower Manhattan. They are playing on ignorance — the notion that all Muslims somehow share responsibility for Al Qaeda — and intolerance. As a very small minority religion in the United States, Islam can be easily stereotyped by self-proclaimed experts, and maligned by every crank who has access to email. Just as Romney’s critics took pieces of Mormon doctrine and twisted them to create rumors of current-day polygamy and rejection of Jesus Christ, some critics of the mosque in Lower Manhattan have sought to portray all of Islam as warlike, and the decision to build a mosque as an act of triumph.
It’s a sad show of prejudice with dire implications not just for freedom of religion, but for national security. Radical Islamists play on the idea that Americans are at war with the Muslim faith to win new recruits. That’s all the more reason for someone who wants to be president to stand up.
Romney has not. He has been far quieter on the issue than other potential GOP presidential candidates, leading some people to hope that he might break with the pack. But his spokesman finally came forward to say the former governor opposes the mosque on the grounds that it could be used as a recruitment tool for radicals (thereby pandering to all the falsehoods about the mosque being somehow related to 9/11) and that its presence offends some relatives of 9/11 victims. But there are plenty of relatives of 9/11 victims, among them some Muslims, who support the mosque. In any case, it’s a terrible precedent to curb freedom of religion on the grounds that other people are uncomfortable. The mere presence of Romney’s great-grandparents offended non-Mormon settlers in Utah, whose prejudices eventually drove the Romneys to seek a freer environment to practice their religion in Mexico.
Some leading Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Romney’s fellow Mormon who is locked in a tight re-election fight in Nevada, have similarly put aside their support for religious expression and joined with mosque opponents for political expediency. One senses that, deep down inside, Romney is a reasonable person who wishes he didn’t have to contend with his party’s angry base. But rather than stand up to it, even on an issue that speaks directly to his own experiences, he has chosen to take the path of least resistance.
His statements have been mild enough that no one can accuse him of fanning the flames of hatred, but no one in the Republican base can say that Romney disagrees with them, either. The whole episode casts an unflattering light on a man who, just two and a half years ago, said, “You can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion — rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.’’