Speaking Freely About Religious Freedom

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This week, the debate over the construction of a Manhattan mosque near Ground Zero reminded us how religion can stir up debate in American politics. Host Scott Simon talks with The Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson about the controversy.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week the debate over the construction of a Manhattan mosque near Ground Zero reminded us how religion can stir up debate in U.S. politics.

Last Friday, President Barack Obama gave a speech to mark the start of Ramadan and said that Muslims have the right to build a mosque wherever they want. Next day he seemed to qualify his position, saying he wasn't commenting on the wisdom of building a mosque at that lower Manhattan site. Since then, a host of national figures have entered the debate.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post. He was also the chief speech writer for former President George W. Bush. He joins us in our studios.�

Mr. Gerson, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Columnist, Washington Post): Great to be with you.

SIMON: You say that the president was right, and that there's a difference between being a pundit and a president.

Mr. GERSON: Right. Well, it's a difficult set of issues and very emotional. But, you know, I've spent some time writing speeches for a president. And you cannot say as president that the holy building of Islam would somehow desecrate the - Manhattan - the sites in Manhattan.

The reasons are pretty clear. You've got millions of Muslim citizens that you serve. You have Muslims who serve in the United States military and you're their commander-in-chief. You've got allies in the war on terror in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim allies who fight at your side, every day fight Islamic radicalism.

And under those circumstances, you know, a president can say a lot of things, but he can't say that, you know, this would somehow be a violation of an American memory to have a non-radical mosque near Ground Zero. I don't think that's an option.

SIMON: You also think the president backtracked a couple days later.

Mr. GERSON: I do. And, you know, this was a case where I think the president unfortunately managed to get all the political damage for taking an unpopular opinion, and then none of the political credit for courage in this matter because he qualified it and backtracked.

And I understand the politics of that, but I think the president was probably better off with his initial statement. I think he's right that it was consistent with American ideals. And it's - and I'm afraid it's elevated the debate without clarifying it in some ways.

So his intervention was not just bad for him, but I don't think it did the debate much good.

SIMON: Is this proposed mosque in lower Manhattan a legitimate political issue or something that should be something else?

Mr. GERSON: Well, I'm afraid that this debate has not been a particularly edifying debate. It's been dominated by people who argue that Islam's incompatible with pluralism and by people who think that, you know, everyone who opposes the mosque is bigoted. And I think both of those are kind of wrong and dangerous.

It shows in a certain way that we can't have a mature debate on this issue, given our current media culture. And that's really a shame, it seems to me. You know, this is an issue that deals with fundamental religious liberties, with historical memory. And it's made into a political football.

And that I think is a bad sign in American politics and American society. We're going to have to confront these things, have to deal with issues of religious liberty in a spirit of charity and understanding. And that's very hard in our current political environment.

SIMON: Mr. Gerson, former President Bush has notably not been involved in any political controversies since leaving office. Does he have a role to play in this one?

Mr. GERSON: No. I actually think that President Bush has drawn an appropriate line. Former presidents should not be engaged like pundits or commentators in debates like this. It often complicates the life of a current president and the president's decided not to do that. I think that makes perfect sense to me.

SIMON: Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post and former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Thanks so much.

Mr. GERSON: Great to be with you.

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