Appearing on Fox News last Sunday, presidential candidate Herman Cain addressed a controversy in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in which local residents are attempting to block the construction of a mosque. Cain, the first presidential candidate to visit Murfreesboro in many years, declared himself opposed to the mosque construction.
When Chris Wallace asked him to clarify his position, Cain said that he thinks communities should generally have the right to prevent the construction of mosques. That would seem to raise some rather hairy First Amendment issues, which Cain addresses in the clip below:
So, in essence, Cain is saying that Islam is both a religion and an aggressive political institution, which “combines church and state.” Because it is both “a religion and a set of laws,” its very existence is a denial of the First Amendment… which cannot be expected to defend an institution dedicated to its destruction. Can the First Amendment protect a religion that wants to erase the First Amendment?
Well, yes, it can. It has to, or else it’s already been erased.
The point of the First Amendment is not the “separation of church and state,” something Cain acknowledged in a subsequent press conference on the mosque controversy. “It means out government cannot impose church, religion, or God on the people,” he said of the First Amendment. “That was one of the things the Founders fought for.”
Here is what the First Amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Although Cain asserted his support of Muslim rights to practice their religion in his Fox News interview, denying them the right to build mosques is clearly an interference with the free exercise of Islam. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of thing militant Islam generally does to other religions, when it achieves political dominance. One does not overcome a sin by indulging in it.
As for Cain’s assertion that Murfreesboro’s non-Islamic citizens consider everyplace the Muslims want to build their mosque to be “holy ground,” as if every square inch of the town is equivalent to Ground Zero… it seems as if I’ve heard that kind of thinking somewhere else before, too.
What Cain is doing here amounts to declaring Muslims, or at least the great majority of them, presumptively guilty of violating the First Amendment, and therefore beyond its protection. That’s wrong, no matter what past history, or events in other parts of the world, are brought into the discussion. It would still be wrong if a poll revealed that fifty, seventy, or ninety percent of American Muslims want to overthrow the Constitution and impose shari’a law. They can want anything they please. The law, both in fact and in principle, is concerned with what they do.
The First Amendment’s protections are not meant to be dispensed, or withheld, as the government sees fit. That principle does not change if the government acts on behalf of a small minority of elite snobs, or a large number of hard-working salt-of-the-earth folks.
This is all part of the modern era’s greatest philosophical challenge: deciding whether the principles of tolerance protect the intolerant. How much intolerance is a tolerant and lawful republic supposed to put up with? It’s not an easy question. The vague answer is “quite a lot”… provided the intolerant keep their hands, and compulsory demands, to themselves.
I’m no fan of shari’a law, and I don’t underestimate the real danger of its imposition, both here and abroad. I know very well how Islamic states tend to treat other religions. That does not change my fierce dedication to the principle of allowing Muslims to build mosques, provided they obey the same zoning ordinances that apply to every other house of worship. I am equally dedicated to the principle of vigorously criticizing what is said inside those mosques, because the First Amendment covers that, too.
There is no need to compromise the First Amendment to protect it from challenge. It thrives against challenges. Indeed, it cannot exist without them. We wouldn’t need it to protect religion and speech if they weren’t exciting.