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Making of a mosque mess

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.

Here are some of the latest voices. A National Review editorial chides the president:

"Obama's embarrassing backtracking highlights a more important lesson about the mosque controversy: It doesn't have anything to do with the free exercise of religion. As Obama spectacularly demonstrated over the last couple of days, you can be a stalwart friend of religious freedom and still not necessarily think the mosque project is a good idea. Indeed, no reasonable opponent of the project contests the right of Muslims to worship as they please in this country -- the First Amendment religious rights of Muslims never have been in question, at all. The critics insist only that this particular location for a project led by these particular people -- including an imam who cannot bring himself to condemn Hamas -- is unseemly and ill-considered. That position in no way implies a disregard for the First Amendment.

"No one can seriously doubt that the organizers of the mosque project would have a legal right -- assuming the zoning and permitting were in order -- to use their property to open a 9/11 museum from the perspective that the attacks were provoked by America's depredations against Islam. . . . But surely even the Michael Bloombergs of the world would summon their moral disapproval of such a project, secure in the knowledge they hadn't violated the First Amendment by speaking out against it.

"Once the obfuscations about the free exercise of religion are cleared away, the question at Ground Zero becomes whether the project is, in Obama's word, wise. Most Americans and most New Yorkers think not, for obvious reasons. It is a site that would have been in the shadow of the World Trade Center before it was knocked down by terrorists acting in the name of Islam."

Daily Beast's Tunku Varadarajan says Obama had it right the first time:

"A mere 24 hours after he threw his presidential weight behind the proposed mosque near New York's ground zero--in a display of statesmanship that was delicious as much for its rarity as for its apparent cojones--Obama recalibrated his position in a frightened, mealy mouthed attempt to placate the anti-mosque opposition (which, depressingly, appears to comprise almost the entire Republican Party). . . .

"At first sight, this may seem but a minor alteration in tone, or nuance. But in political terms, it is tectonic, reducing Obama in stature from a brave man, standing tall against the forces of intolerance, to a picayune, insecure trimmer who wishes to be all things to all people, a man who is so unsure of his own principles that he will seek to reinterpret words, just a day after he uttered them, that Mayor Bloomberg described as 'clarion.' "

That seems overly harsh. But the press did convey the impression that Obama was retreating.

Ross Douthat digs deeper, seeing a clash of two strains in our national life:

"The first America, not surprisingly, views the project as the consummate expression of our nation's high ideals. 'This is America,' President Obama intoned last week, 'and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.' The construction of the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers, is as important a test of the principle of religious freedom 'as we may see in our lifetimes.'

"The second America begs to differ. It sees the project as an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness. And beneath these concerns lurks the darker suspicion that Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.

"This is typical of how these debates usually play out. The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics."

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