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On Presidents and Ground-Zero Mosques

I don’t have an opinion on whether it’s appropriate to build a Muslim religious building near the site of Ground Zero in Manhattan and if I did, I wouldn’t state it publicly. But the President does have an opinion- a controversial one- and he sure is catching hell for it. It’s a politically damaging, principled position.

He really could have gone merrily along his way ignoring the issue as the White House had been doing for weeks saying it’s a matter for local authorities to decide. But, no, the President waded into these stormy waters twice- once last Friday night and again Saturday.

His position is that Muslims have the same rights as any religious group in America, that they should not be singled out (no one would have a problem with a Christian church or Synagogue being built there) but he won’t say whether the ground-zero Mosque idea is specifically a good idea or not.

As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.

That nuance will not be picked up by the President’s political enemies or those who don’t want a Mosque built on what is, essentially, hallowed ground. For Republicans in particular, Christmas has arrived a few months early. Since they can read polls that find almost 70% of Americans opposed to the Ground-zero Mosque, they are yelling from every street corner that this is all the evidence you need that Obama lectures and does not listen and is disconnected from the will of the people.

Roger Simon, in one of the most cynical political columns  I’ve ever read, argues at Politico.com that this very intellectually smart President is a political idiot. Simon says you don’t take politically unpopular positions even if they are morally and constitutionally correct. At least not in your first term. Simon maintains you do that kind of stuff in your second term when re-election is no longer an issue.

The President is a constitutional expert. It’s what he taught on the University level. He believes the document is pretty clear about religious freedom not being reserved just for those faiths Americans feel comfortable with. Most Americans are not constitutional experts and they will not understand the point.

I don’t believe him to be a fool. John F. Kennedy wrote a Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, that catalogues rare instances in which politicians have risked all to take controversial actions or positions. Off the top of my head I can name several, courageous, unpopular decisions that Presidents have made. Dwight Eisenhower sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce racial integration. Lyndon Johnson signing the civil rights and voting rights acts, actions he accurately admitted to others would probably lose Democrats the South for generations to come.

Politico’s Roger Simon (speaking on behalf of many talking heads everywhere) argues and I quote:

You could not put the conventional wisdom more clearly: It is far better for a president to do nothing than to choose a side. Even if the side he chooses is the right one from an ethical or moral perspective, it is a “blunder” politically because inevitably it will upset some people.

Obviously Barack Obama does not care how many people he upsets. Is it a leader’s duty to follow polls and tell people what they want to hear- or does a leader occasionally take a stand, even if most of the people will vehemently disagree?

Sometimes, the men who have occupied the Oval Office have acted as poll-reading politicians and sometimes as leaders. This President, risking quite a bit, has opted for leadership. He obviously believes this issue- and the principle- are more important than the politics.

Not all people disagree with the President. New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for one, supports the President’s position, calling it a “clarion defense of the freedom of religion.” Florida Governor Charlie Crist supports him on the same grounds. Note both men are Independents and not associated with either major political party.

And now comes the hard part for the President. There are consequences for taking nuanced, controversial positions based on principle. You can lose elections. Mid-terms and re-elections, alike. But at least he will have gone down for a principle he thought was important enough to fight for. Agree or disagree with the position, it did take guts to state it.

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