Joe Conason: Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich Need a History Lesson

Roundup: Media's Take

[Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.]

No recent controversy has so plainly revealed the hollow values of the American right than the effort to prevent the construction of a community center in Lower Manhattan because it will include a mosque. Arguments in opposition range from a professed concern for the sensitivities of the Sept. 11 victims’ families to a primitive battle cry against Islam—but what they all share is an arrant disregard for our country’s founding principles.

The impulse to violate the First Amendment rights of Muslims—as Muslims!—is so blatantly wrong and so radical, in the worst sense, that it almost defies outrage. Until now, nobody in a position of responsibility has sought to deny basic religious liberty to any group whose practices did not somehow trespass the law. Despite disagreements around the borders of religious freedom, the nation shared a consensus in favor of the concept—for everyone, with no exceptions.

It is a consensus that dates back to the first days following the Revolution, when George Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., guaranteeing the new republic’s commitment to universal tolerance. The first president explained in that historic letter why that guarantee could only be categorical and indivisible:

“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

In short, the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, to those of any faith or no faith, belongs to all the people. Liberty is not bestowed on Muslims or Hindus or Jews by Christians, and cannot be rescinded from any group by another. Certainly, it is not subject to revocation by any seedy demagogue....

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