Simon Schama: Obama's brave remarks reveal a true patriot

Roundup: Historians' Take

[The writer is an FT contributing editor. His latest book is ‘Scribble Scribble Scribble: writings on ice cream, Obama, Churchill and my mother’.]

Has Barack Obama just committed political suicide? By appearing to endorse the building of a mosque and Islamic cultural centre at the threshold of Ground Zero, has he set himself at odds with the majority of Americans who regard the idea as a desecration of “hallowed ground”?

Beleaguered Democrats fighting a rearguard action in upcoming mid-term elections are shaking their heads at this new handicap with which the president has burdened them. Republican notables such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, jostling for position in the wannabe president stakes, can scarcely contain their glee.

But the critics are deluded. If the quarrel over the mosque at Ground Zero turns into a debate on the sovereign principles of the American way of life, it is the president and Mayor Bloomberg who will emerge with honour, as the true custodians of what the founders had in mind.

Freedom of conscience and religious practice, Mr Obama said at the Iftar dinner, and again in brief clarifying remarks, define “who we are”. And in reaffirming this bedrock principle, it is Mr Obama, not his enemies, who identifies himself as an authentic American patriot.

This matters. In our present obsession with the fate of money (entirely understandable if you have a whole lot less of it than you once did), we forget that the reason why young men and women are putting themselves in the line of fire is precisely our resistance to fanaticism of the kind that imagined massacre, inflicted on a tolerant and secular society, to be a sacred duty.

Against this, as the president pointed out, we may summon military force, but in the end it is the ideal of toleration that will always be our strongest weapon. Of the constitutive importance of religious freedom to the creation of America there can be no doubt. Mr Obama, as usual, has his history right, and wants it acknowledged even at the expense of political prudence...

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