When I first began reading about the controversy surrounding a proposed Mosque being built near Ground Zero in New York City, I was completely mystified: We live in America! In 2010! Are we seriously debating whether a mainstream religion should have the right to build a house of worship?
I was even more bewildered when I read that 52 percent of New Yorkers were opposed to the construction of the Mosque, with 31 percent in favor and 17 percent undecided. Filled with moral outrage, I posted an angry Facebook status with a link to an article about conservative politicians capitalizing on the bigotry.
Almost immediately, though, I began to question my indignation. Having lived in New York for about three months now, I can attest to the fact that it's among the most tolerant places in the world. On any given subway car, you'll find more economic, racial, religious and political diversity than most college campuses. The 8 million people who live in New York 's five boroughs are not generally a bigoted bunch – so why were they showing such contempt for Muslims?
There's no simple answer, of course, and that may not even be a fair question. Some New Yorkers are clearly just motivated by blind prejudice and hatred. Some are worried about zoning laws. And still some have formed their opinions based on centuries-old religious struggles. (The same poll found that 66 percent of Jews in New York opposed the Mosque.)
But all of them – at least those who have lived in New York over the past decade – have one thing in common: they watched as the twin towers fell only miles from their homes.
And so I tread carefully here. As someone who watched 9/11 unfold on CNN, safe in my suburban Massachusetts home, I cannot relate to the people who lost family members, friends and co-workers in those towers, the people whose minds filled with fear for months every time they boarded a bus or entered a crowded office building.
But as a Mormon, I can't accept that religious persecution is justified by an isolated group of people who severely misinterpret their faith. Very little compares in scope to the 9/11 terror attacks, but every religious group contains members who use their beliefs as an excuse to commit atrocities. Should Protestant churches be banned from places where the KKK has committed murder? Should Latter-day Saints be forbidden from building chapels on blocks where crazed fundamentalists have committed child abuse?
Much was made last week of Sarah Palin's Tweet on this subject: "Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing."
And I can see her critics' points. For one thing, Palin must know by now that whenever she makes a comment (even on a local zoning issue) she further incites the type of inflammatory partisan debate that has gridlocked Congress. For another, it seems unreasonable that she wants "peace-seeking Muslims" to distinguish themselves from terrorists while so many of us seem unwilling to distinguish a Mosque from a terrorist boot camp.
But on at least one count, I think Palin has it right. If anyone is going to decide not to build a Mosque near Ground Zero, it should be Muslims. Again, as a Mormon, I would be infuriated if a government prohibited my church from building a chapel because of a few violent, misguided Latter-day Saints, but if church leaders decided for themselves that it was unnecessary to incite the anger of so many, I would stand behind their judgment.
I understand that New Yorkers have more reasons than most to be anxious, scared or angry. But I also believe that all people should be allowed to worship "how, where, or what they may."
And so, I believe, did the founding fathers.