Respect And Religious Liberty: A Christian Minister’s Perspective On The NYC Islamic Center Debate

Since the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” began, we have heard many deplorable and ignorant comments against law-abiding Muslim Americans who have every right to practice their faith in the United States.

Most recently, TV preacher Pat Robertson announced on his TV program, “The 700 Club,” that Muslims could bribe local officials to expand their influence. "Imagine what $10,000 does to a small, local politician in a small, local town," he observed.

Robertson described the conflict over the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., as a clash of civilizations between an 8th-century desert world and one that’s modern. He also charged that Muslims might take over the Murfreesboro city council and girls might have to wear headscarves to school.

Local officials were predictably incensed about Robertson’s remarks about their alleged propensity for bribes. But even more disturbing is the TV preacher’s willingness to demonize a minority faith. Once again, he has shown his lack of respect for our country’s diversity and true freedom.

In contrast, many Christian religious leaders have spoken out on behalf of religious liberty and equality.

In the Sunday edition of the (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, the Rev. Monty Knight, president of Americans United’s Charleston chapter, made it clear that the building of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan is an exercise of First Amendment freedom.

“The argument that a Muslim community center in such a wounded neighborhood shows a disregard for grieving survivors of the 9/11 atrocity conveniently forgets that many Muslims were among the victims,” he writes. “Though it is legal for these moderate, conciliatory Muslims to build this community center, their choice of where to build it is a case of bad manners, the argument goes.

“Our Constitution may or may not be more concerned with justice than sensitivity,” Knight continued, “Interestingly, there is a portion of Scripture that addresses this. In both chapters 6 and 10 of Paul's letter, First Corinthians, he instructs his fellow Christians with this admonition: ‘All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.’ In that context, if Paul is urging Christians in a pluralistic society to be sensitive to others whose views and values may be different from theirs, he is also urging those same Christians to not be overly sensitive when their sensibilities are offended. Indeed, it is a Christian ethic that admonishes both offender and offended alike.”

Knight explained how wrong it is that all Muslim Americans have been negatively stereotyped as being militant extremists. In the case of those building the Islamic center, he noted, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The imam and his wife most closely identified with this project have lived and worked honorably in this same downtown Manhattan neighborhood for many years,” he wrote, “As patriotic Americans, these Sufi Muslims have earned the respect of others because of how respectful they have been toward those who may hold views and values different from theirs. It's what the First Amendment is meant to promote. The administration of former President George W. Bush even solicited the help of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf in an effort to promote cultural and religious reconciliation following 9/11.”

Knight concluded by explaining that his work as a Christian minister has been improved by America’s religious diversity.

“My life has been enriched,” he said, “by relationships with people different from myself, religiously or otherwise -- enough, in fact, for me to conclude that the surest way to rob any of us of our humanity is to pay too much attention to how we have been labeled. The First Amendment reflects the highest and noblest vision of our great nation. And for many of us, at least, that means we are most Christian when we understand, accept and respect those who aren't.”

Knight makes a strong case, and we hope that all Americans can join him in seeing the value in respecting and protecting all Americans’ religious freedom.