From the President's prepared remarks:
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.
We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led the response to that attack -– from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us also remember who we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam -– it’s a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders -– they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion -– and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
So that's who we’re fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms -– it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us –- and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.
A few quick thoughts about Obama's forceful speech yesterday expressing strong support for Cordoba House, which will go down as one of the finest moments of his presidency.
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.
One good way to measure Obama's performance as president, I think, is by the degree to which he meets this famous pledge:
The easiest thing in the world for a politician to do is to tell you exactly what you want to hear. But if we want to finally solve the challenges we're facing right now, we need to tell the American people what they need to hear.
Obama certainly hasn't always met that standard. But in declaring his support for allowing the so-called Ground Zero mosque to be opened in New York City, Obama has done something very much in defiance of public opinion and very much in line, it seems, with what is in his heart.
Essentially, public opinion on this issue is divided into thirds. About a third of the country thinks that not only do the developers have a right to build the mosque, but that it's a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Another third think that while the development is in poor taste, the developers nevertheless have a right to build it. And the final third think that not only is the development inappropriate, but the developers have no right to build it -- perhaps they think that the government should intervene to stop it in some fashion.
Obama's remarks, while asserting that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country," and that the "principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are," simply reflected the view that the developers had a First Amendment right to proceed with the project -- a view that at least 60 percent of Americans share. True, Obama could have hedged a little bit more, by saying something along the lines of "they have every right to build it, but I hope they will consider another location". On the other hand, it is not as though he said "this is a wonderful thing, and I'm going to make sure to take Sasha and Malia there once it's built." Instead, he acknowledged the sensitivity over the Ground Zero site, calling it "hallowed ground", but couched the controversy in terms of the First Amendment.
So it is not really so clear whether Obama has staked out an unpopular position or not. While it is almost certainly riskier than his remaining mum on the issue, the assertion that the developers have a Constitutional right to proceed with the project is not particularly controversial. Palin and Gingirch will scream and shout, but they may be doing little more than preach to the converted.
And back to Greg again:
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.