As a non-New Yorker, I do not have a very well-formed opinion of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but his recent speech defending the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” contains one of least impeachable arguments I have seen a public figure make in favor of church-state separation under the U.S. Constitution. Rather than positing a general founding secularism that is just inaccurate enough to give Christianists a foothold for their mythologizing, Bloomberg grounded the mosque’ s right to exist firmly on individual rights, especially private property rights:
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.
It is hard to see how anyone with real conservative principles could take much issue with that private property argument. Not that I assume most of the criticism has come from principle — fear and fear-mongering are easier on the brain, and get a lot more attention.
Of course, Bloomberg’s speech was not free of historical mythology, especially about New York as the birthplace of religious toleration. (His cited basis for this claim is the locally semi-famous “Flushing Remonstrance” of 1657, in which officials in the titular Queens village begged Director General Peter Stuyvesant to permit a Quaker meeting. In response, Stuyvesant jailed the officials and abolished the town government, so it was not really a big win for religious freedom.) This site’s esteemed co-founder painted early New York as something completely other than an island of peaceful pluralism, and even Bloomberg himself covers the fact that New York did not in fact have religious toleration until after the Revolution: the Catholic Church was not allowed to open its doors until the 1780s.
All of which points up the problem with most claims that the United States was “founded on” any particular modern idea we might choose to advocate. There were multiple moments of founding, and all of those were the product of political processes that participants could and did ascribe many different meanings to. One does not have spend much time reading the founding generation’s constitutional debates and newspaper essays to realize that they never fully agreed themselves what the nation they were founding was being “founded on.”
As a for instance: the principle Bloomberg cites is certainly present in Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and Madison’s first amendment to the Constitution, but many of the Founders (especially those who identified with the Federalist party) continued to believe that government needed to embrace and employ Protestant Christianity. It also seems safe to say that at least some founding lids would have flipped if someone had tried to open a mosque next door to Federal Hall in 1789. On the other hand, some might not have. The early presidents were all aware that the U.S. would be contact with cultures around the globe, and took occasion to single out Muslims as a group that Americans were not set against, at least in theory. Either way, it is not clear that the Founders and their colonial forebears really have much guidance to offer us. We in this century have to make these decisions for ourselves.