Mayor Bloomberg’s speech on religious freedom in New York City advocates for the proposed mosque and community center, called the Cordoba Initiative, on the grounds of the religious freedom and tolerance that have been woven into the historical fabric of the United States. In evaluating his discourse on this controversy, it would be helpful to bear in mind an important rule in biblical interpretation—that of context. It is not only the literal words of a text that matter. For greater comprehension, interpretation requires that one understands the cultural, social, historical and literary milieu under which a passage was written.
Why was it necessary for the founding fathers to guarantee religious freedom under the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution? The context was that of religious persecution in Europe where national religions were given prominence at the expense of other faiths. It was at great personal cost that dissenters practiced their own religion. Many fled to the shores of the New World for this precious freedom. Thus it was vital for this fledgling country to ban a national faith and protect the right of independent worship.
In the current situation, no one is denying the right of Muslims to assemble and worship. In defending the Cordoba Initiative’s desire to build a mosque near Ground Zero, Mayor Bloomberg refers to legal and constitutional grounds such as the separation of church and state. The opening of a mosque in a private building is a sanctioned right of religious freedom. He correctly concludes, “The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right – and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
However, there is more involved than wooden adherence to the United States Constitution. A judicious application of our legal tradition requires wisdom to take into account the cultural, social, political and historical circumstances conditions under which it is to be followed. In a different time and place, the construction of this Islamic center would not stir a ripple of controversy. It might even be welcomed! It is a matter of context.
The proposal by some to move the site further away from the proximity of the World Trade Center takes into account the reality of physical context. However, Mayor Bloomberg has rejected this compromise on the grounds of principle.
Here are some other contextual questions to consider:
- Which branch of Islam will be practiced? How do the imam and the other leaders of this mosque view the United States?
- Who are the major financial contributors to the mosque?
- If a stated aim of this mosque is to build an interfaith community, what are some of the proposed plans? Who is defined into or out of the “interfaith” community?
- Since this group has already been worshipping near this site, presumably without controversy, what difference does it make if it takes legal ownership of the building? Will anything substantively change?
If the backers of the Cordoba Initiative were to provide answers to these and other contextual issues, it would help us to arrive at a more informed position. Reciting law and historical tradition is insufficient. This is an emotional issue as much as it is a legal one.
Note: During 911, Reverend Andrew Lee was a pastor at Overseas Chinese Mission in Chinatown. Previously, he was pastor at Trust in God Baptist Church. He is the regional director of Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity and serves as Adjunct Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary & New Brunswick Theological Seminary. We have asked religious leaders with congregations or church affiliates near Ground Zero to respond to Mayor Bloomberg's speeches on religion and religious freedom in the city and the mosque controversies. OpEds do not necessarily reflect the views of A Journey.