Mosque and Running Scared

Our political landscape nowadays is like a landfill, filled with lots of junk. This is most apparent on the heightened debate over the building of a mosque near Ground Zero and the posturing around the upcoming mid-term elections. Republicans are fast chasing after President Obama, and Democrats are fast running away from him. But what does that mean about where we stand, especially on the mosque?

The debate over the mosque (really a religious center that houses a mosque) is no open and shut case. Like many tough issues, there are conflicting values at work here. There are clear concerns over freedom of religion and tolerance; and yet there are issues about respect too – even if one can place the center near Ground Zero, it is wise to do so? I’ve heard reasonable arguments on both sides. But what I haven’t heard is a real conversation that explicitly joins these values and sorts through them.

Indeed, as the political season has heated up, I’ve found myself cringing – no, actually being downright disgusted – with much of the political rhetoric surrounding the religious center. Republicans act like President Obama and other “defenders” of tolerance have committed treason. They are now using the mosque as a “wedge issue,” reminiscent of the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. They seem to believe that such worn-out tactics will be a key to the 2010 mid-term elections.

Meanwhile, many Democrats, even before the most recent debate over the religious center, have been slowly but surely slinking away from the president – hoping that voters will see them as bold and independent. Of course, this is a time-honored tradition during mid-terms. But before we readily accept this year’s version, I do wonder what these political maneuverings mean when it comes to the debate over the mosque and Ground Zero. For while one can hear many Democrats mumbling something about freedom of religion when it comes to building the center, they quickly take cover by saying this is all a local zoning issue.

For sure, it is a local zoning issue. But let’s be real – it’s much more than that, too. This issue strikes at the very heart of what kind of country we seek to be, and who we will ultimately become. Some people might say that my take on this is too abstract, too general, too out of touch with the daily reality of politics.

But my response to such a critique is that it is our politics that is out of touch with the daily reality of our country, that it has become too jaded, too narrow, and too self-referential. That politics has come to distort those things that we actually care about, and which we actually need to speak together about. Of course, there are times when some issues are better left unaddressed, left for another day, a better time.

But this issue is not one of them. Instead, this issue summons us to engage. And in doing so, we face a fundamental choice. How will we engage? In this particular debate, and in others, we find ourselves struggling as a nation about whether we will be defensive in who we are, in a sense cowering in the corner, attempting to beat back those challenges and “enemies” who approach us; or we will choose to actively create who we will become, always mindful of the values and history we wish to guide our engagement and actions.

When people spend all their time either chasing after or running away from someone else, it’s usually not long before they realize they do not even know where they stand. Maybe that’s the point. But, for me, I want us to engage on this issue. For it is only by engaging that we can figure out where we stand, and get to create who we will become.