Rights and Discretion

Obama’s remarks on the “Ground Zero Mosque” lack, for once, his usual clarity. He’s come down quite strongly on the point that Muslims have a right to build where they choose, but less so on whether they should use that right. The distinction is one between the right to an act, and the discretion which one should employ in its exercise. (RedState actually hits on this, but Erickson’s bullet-pointed, talk-show style writing deprives the point of its eloquence, while his confusion about the scope of the rights discussed deprives it of its meaning.) For my part, to be clear, Muslims have the right to build where they want, and the reasonable exercise of discretion does not suggest otherwise.

There is no principled argument that a religion does not have the right to build a place of worship wheresoever it pleases, unless barred by a law of general application. It’s rare that the phrase “un-American” can be appropriately used, but those who suggest otherwise are precisely that. Thankfully, they’re few, but vocal.

The discretionary argument is harder to make, and I’m not sure if our side has been able to make it in a satisfying manner, yet. Surely it’s true that ordinary Muslims can’t be tarred with the crimes of a violent minority, just as Fred Phelps doesn’t speak for Christianity. But the anti-“mosque” group doesn’t have to make that argument to make their case. To sustain the charge that building the “mosque” is insensitive, they only have to prove that a non-trivial amount of society will draw the connection, whether or not it’s erroneous to do so. How do you answer that?

As stated, I don’t think we have yet. I’ll take three shots at it.

First, societal decisions can’t be held hostage to a misguided minority. Rules of polite society don’t, or shouldn’t, vest a heckler’s veto in the first party to make a plausible case for “offense.” This is a principle to which conservatives normally subscribe, but I guess “political correctness” is okay, so long as it confers rather than restricts a right to take a shot at unpopular minorities.

Second, leadership is found in defeating, not succumbing to, our baser instincts. This is a teachable moment that carries no small importance to our relationship with the East, if not diplomatically, then culturally. Clashes of civilizations become self-fulfilling prophecies, left untended. I keep going back to Foreign Affairsbrilliant verse review of Huntington’s book:

Politicians prone to pick what’s overripe or rotten
May resurrect a culture that is gone but not forgotten,
Building on the current state of cultural confusion
To craft a cult of closure or a culture of exclusion.
We publish at our peril and we magnify the dangers
By lending credibility to cultural estrangers.
[. . . .]
History’s indispensable to shape our understanding,
But it needs to be there at the takeoff, not the landing.
To find our voice and tools of choice in shaping human futures,
We need to nurse that vision not with scalpels, but with sutures.

Huntington as scientist may well deduce his stances,
But Huntington as moralist might just reduce our chances.

Finally — and this is a point friend-of-the-site Mike makes — if we agree that discretion requires Imam Rauf, and Financial District Muslims, not to exercise their right to religious freedom, the requisite discretion swallows the right. Religious freedom doesn’t exist for the easy cases. It exists for the hard ones. That’s tough, but also the way the system was designed. Being an American is hard. It’s supposed to be hard to be the good guy. This country was built for men of moral courage, by men of moral courage.


  1. All First Amendment issues aside, it’s somewhat amusing to see prominent Republicans of all people arguing so vehemently against the discretionary right of private property owners to do whatever they want with their property. I thought that was something only evil socialists or communists did.

    1. I’m still struck that they’re leaving it to the secular liberals to defend religious freedom.

  2. Arguing that NYC should make the site a “landmark,” and take it by eminent domain, is hilarious.

    1. They want to condemn a third of lower Manhattan?

  3. I heard an interesting discussion this morning on MSNBC about this. Joe Scarborough was musing that this issue may be the one that finally brings the moderate Republicans back out of the woodwork. A lot of conservatives, myself included, are lining on the opposites side from the wingnuts who are opposing this building. I would be happy to see the TP folks shoot themselves in the foot over this.

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