The Discomforts of Freedom

Congress shall make no law respecting the 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.

I am usually better-than-average in my comfort zone with the complexities of the U.S. Constitution.  Not that I am a legal scholar, but I tend to see the difference between what is making people uncomfortable and what is actually constitutional without too much trouble, and it doesn’t raise my blood pressure most of the time.  It is true, however, that nothing about the Constitution is designed to make us comfortable.  It is designed to challenge us to be a free as we can be without violating the rights of others.

The most powerful and influential thing I ever heard about the idea of “rights” is this:  When we say that someone has a right, we have simultaneously said that someone else does not have a right.

When we say that someone has a right, we have simultaneously said that someone else does not have a right.

It’s a troubling sentence, but very important to process every time we throw around talk about “rights.” In the United States when it comes to the highest law of the land we have to focus on the Constitution and what this country is about, not on what makes us comfortable.  If I have a right to smoke cigarettes unrestricted, that means that no one else has the right to breathe clean air.  If you have the right to hit your child, that means your child do not have the right to an absence of violence against them.  One can see how this goes down a snarly road quickly, but one can also see how the Supreme Court starts slicing and dicing the nation’s most difficult cases.  Don’t tell us how you feel.  Tell us which Constitutional rights are at stake.

A few decades ago in the sleepy college town of Davidson, North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan applied for a parade permit.  The town approved their permit, and then essentially the entire town abandoned Main Street and gathered on campus for a community picnic.  The Klan marched, alone.  I don’t think they ever came back to Davidson, at least not in a manner expecting endorsement and attention.

The construction of a mosque very close to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York has challenged me in unexpected ways.  I want to say I’m cool with it, but I’m not, at least not from the perspective of how I feel.  But it doesn’t matter how I feel, it only matters what rights the Constitution preserves and protects.  There is a baked-in irony in the attitude that “allowing” this place of worship on “our” holy ground only celebrates a radical Muslim victory against the United States.  The greatest victory any enemy of our country could ever achieve would be to turn us into something else, to so terrorize and shake our foundation that we rationalize stepping away from what makes us unique, from what makes us a destination that people around the world risk everything to reach.  Grief over the 9/11 attacks will never disappear, but that grief cannot be enshrined as a national religion.  The Constitution prohibits that, and we should all be deeply grateful.

Freedom of religion ensures that this mosque can be built, at ground zero or anywhere else.  The President of the United States said he “would not comment on the wisdom” of the decision to build, and that is probably the best thing he can say.  It doesn’t matter how anyone else feels about it.  It is a protected right, and it should be allowed to proceed in peace.

I am also allowed to ignore it after today, and to take my picnic somewhere else.  That is my right.  And I wouldn’t trade any of these rights for anything, especially not for a society where I am never challenged and always comfortable.

Update: I made a mistake when I referred to the issue as being about a “mosque.”  Several times today I saw items that clarified this proposed construction is about a community center with a space reserved for worship.  I think this probably doesn’t change many feelings, but anything that can be done to talk about the facts is important.  This is what I get for reading CNN headlines, right?  I also saw this link posted by someone on Facebook:  What a great reminder that headlines aren’t citizens, and New Yorkers are some of the last of us to get up in arms about diversity!  A good read for some good perspective………