Would you let the mosque be built?

Last night while driving home I heard a live broadcast of a gubernatorial candidates’ debate in Tennessee. One question was about whether the candidates would allow a mosque to be built in a neighborhood. As I listened to their responses, my stomach began to turn, and then I considered my own question: Is this the country we want? It would be enough to write this morning about the silly format of the debate itself. Indeed, when I first tuned in, it would have been easy to mistake the broadcast for a bad TV game show. In one segment, each of the four candidates had 15 seconds to ask another candidate a question, and in turn that candidate had a mere 30 seconds to reply. When a candidate went over the allotted time, a bell would go off – “ding.” This happened to one candidate who was asked why he voted for the TARP bill in Congress. So, on and on the debate went, with two moderators, chattering together as if they were on Action News at 6PM. Such debate formats make a mockery of critical issues in people’s lives.

But as I listened there emerged the question about mosques, and whether the candidates would allow one to be built in a neighborhood. There were two basic responses. One came from a candidate who worried about the radical elements of Islam. He implied that the building of a mosque – any mosque – should be equated with such elements. His bottom line message: our main task in life is to be vigilant against the enemy.

Other candidates invoked lofty language about Judeo-Christian principles being the backbone of our nation’s history, and some even talked about freedom of assembly and the right to free speech. But in all these cases, such language was merely a quick segue to say that the building of a mosque is a local zoning issue (read: I’m not going to touch this issue), and that all such decisions should be made locally. And yet, even in these answers, there was a clear and unmistakable sense that none of these candidates would suggest that a mosque should be built, as they might a church or synagogue.

We live in a time when it is easy to tap into people’s preconceived notions, untested ideas, and basic fears. I know there can be all sorts of local zoning issues when citing any building near or in a neighborhood. In my old neighborhood, there were always concerns about a rapidly growing church down the street. But working out zoning issues is radically different from whether we allow mosques to be built at all in communities.

As I listened last night, I recalled times growing up in Upstate New York when I was the first Jew many people had ever met, and when my school-age friends came into our temple – any temple – for the very first time. It was a different world to them. Sure, I’m part of the Judeo-Christian history of this country, but, it seems to me, it is how we use that tradition today that counts.

Our partner in our recent public broadcasting initiative, Nashville Public Television, a major station in Tennessee, has won community-wide plaudits for stepping forward and genuinely engaging the community in hot-button issues surrounding a growing immigrant population in the community. Beth Curley, the CEO of NPT, and Kevin Crane, Vice President of Content and Technology, demonstrated real leadership in their work. It’s clearly possible, but it’s clearly a choice.

On issues like the building of a mosque, what would it mean for the candidates to do the same – and for each of us as well?