After hearing this morning that Harry Reid has now entered into this vitriolic debate about the right to build a mosque (or the responsibility not to do so) where shadows of the Twin Towers once fell, my curiosity about how Mormons, both scholars and non, feel about this controversy, has bubbled over onto the virtual pages of JI.
As we well know, from the point of view of its detractors, Mormonism has been linked to Islam since at least E. D. Howe’s 1834 Mormonism Unvailed, in which the Ohio newspaperman declared that Joseph Smith cited his own “extreme ignorance and apparent stupidity” as proof of the authentic prophethood, just as Mohammed had claimed his own illiteracy as proof of the divinity of the Quran.
Since this controversy over the mosque in Manhattan began a few months ago, I couldn’t help but see the historical comparisons we could make between this type of insidious religious persecution and the types Mormons have faced in the past and as of late (as I’m typing this in my Somerville apartment, I can see through the foliage the Belmont Temple, the construction of which faced its own challenges by non-Mormon locals who cloaked what I believe to be anti-Mormonism in language of parking lot run-off and traffic congestion).
No doubt, Harry Reid’s decision to weigh in on the side of the anti-mosquers is a political move, intended to win him a few votes among the anti-Obama set in his hotly contested reelection bid, and in my view also pick up a nomination in the category of most ironic political decision for 2010 category.
Perhaps I go too far. The area around Ground Zero is certainly hallowed ground and sensitivity (the buzz word misused in my interpretation by those opposed to the mosque) should be respected. Yet (what I’m sure is obvious from this post) I feel that on constitutional grounds made clear by President Obama, and perhaps more importantly on moral grounds, I believe the mosque should be allowed to be built as a symbol to the world that America takes seriously its principle of freedom of religion. My opinion is that there is no better place than to build this mosque than close to Ground Zero, especially since according to the plans it will serve not only the Manhattan Muslim community but provide theater and athletic spaces for all New Yorkers.
As a historian, I would believe that saints would be natural allies with these Muslims hoping to construct a house of worship (and social center), as Mormons have fought similar battles for decades, and did so often citing the Constitution. Even more poignantly, as the most persecuted religious community in American history, saints observing the tide of American sentiment moves clearly against the construction of this mosque would find, I would imagine, parallels in their recent and more distant past.
Perhaps my personal feelings on this issue have gotten in the way of cogent analysis. Perhaps I should understand Harry Reid’s decision to condemn the mosque’s construction as I understand Mormons’ participation in the Proposition Eight fight—that these political decisions actually mark the degree to which Mormonism has integrated into the (conservative) American experience. Mormons no longer feel the need to, even implicitly, defend the history of plural marriage and instead can join their one-time persecutors in their fight against legal recognition of unconventional love-partnerships (without the Wendy Doniger dog barking at the gate). And in terms of the mosque, Mormons like Reid can practice American civil religion (as it was revamped after 9/11) and not side with religious outsiders, of which his adopted faith was a part, in the defense of religious freedom.
So let me put my question to the JI community more directly. Am I right about Reid’s decision? Are there in fact historical parallels to be drawn between the Mormon and Muslim American Experiences? How does the LDS community at large feel about this issue? Is it an issue of religious freedom for saints? Or am I missing something profound about the claim to “sensitivity”?