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Obama's brave remarks reveal a true patriot

By Simon Schama 

Published: August 15 2010 19:29 | Last updated: August 15 2010 19:29

Has Barack Obama <>  just
committed political suicide? By appearing to endorse the building of a
mosque and Islamic cultural centre at the threshold of Ground Zero, has he
set himself at odds with the majority
<>  of
Americans who regard the idea as a desecration of "hallowed ground"? 

Beleaguered Democrats fighting a rearguard action in upcoming mid-term
elections are shaking their heads at this new handicap with which the
president has burdened them. Republican notables such as Newt Gingrich and
Sarah Palin, jostling for position in the wannabe president stakes, can
scarcely contain their glee. 

But the critics are deluded. If the quarrel over the mosque at Ground Zero
turns into a debate on the sovereign principles of the American way of life,
it is the president and Mayor Bloomberg who will emerge with honour, as the
true custodians of what the founders had in mind. 

Freedom of conscience and religious practice, Mr Obama said at the Iftar
dinner, and again in brief clarifying remarks, define "who we are". And in
reaffirming this bedrock principle, it is Mr Obama, not his enemies, who
identifies himself as an authentic American patriot. 

This matters. In our present obsession with the fate of money (entirely
understandable if you have a whole lot less of it than you once did), we
forget that the reason why young men and women are putting themselves in the
line of fire is precisely our resistance to fanaticism of the kind that
imagined massacre, inflicted on a tolerant and secular society, to be a
sacred duty. 

Against this, as the president pointed out, we may summon military force,
but in the end it is the ideal of toleration that will always be our
strongest weapon. Of the constitutive importance of religious freedom to the
creation of America there can be no doubt. Mr Obama, as usual, has his
history right, and wants it acknowledged even at the expense of political

It was not the Jamestown settlers, in pursuit of overnight fortunes in
Virginia, who created the American way. Their version of America perished
along with their cupidity. It was refugees from an English church
establishment who planted the flag of toleration on US soil. And for some it
was never deep enough. 

The father of American toleration was Roger Williams, the founder of
Providence Plantation, later Rhode Island. For Williams, the Calvinists of
Massachusetts with their church courts, violated true christianity, which -
in its purity - eschewed any civil regulation. It was Williams (not
Jefferson) who first articulated the "hedge" between church and state. 

It is no accident, then, that Jews first found refuge in Newport, Rhode
Island. Nor was it chance that almost exactly 220 years ago George
Washington, campaigning for the adoption of the first amendment to the
constitution, repeated the words of Moses Seixas, the warden of the Touro
synagogue, that the US was a place that gave "to bigotry no sanction, to
persecution no assistance". 

Six years later, at the end of Washington's second term, the Treaty of
Tripoli, made with the Barbary states of north Africa - a document ratified
by the Senate in June 1797 and signed by President Adams - also explicitly
states in article 11 that "as the government of the United States is not in
any sense founded on the Christian religion. it has no character of enmity
against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Mussulmen [sic]."

But Thomas Jefferson is the founder who sticks in the craw of the
sanctimonious American right. Jefferson believed in a creator, but not in
the divinity of Jesus, much less the virgin birth, which he thought only as
a "fable". But most of all he believed that the Republic stood or fell by
its absolute commitment to freedom of conscience. 

"It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods or no god.
It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg," he wrote in his Notes on
Virginia. Jefferson owned a Koran, and was fascinated by Islamic learning
that he recognised to have been the medieval guardian of the classical
wisdom he revered. His 1777 draft of the Virginia Statute on Religious
Toleration is plangent in its fierce refusal to allow government any role in
interference with freedom to think or worship how and where one wishes. 

"Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself," he wrote. "She is the
proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the
conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free
argument and debate."

We ought to commit these lines to memory, for they are why we fight; what
distinguishes us from the atrocious fanatics who thought on 9/11 - and in
al-Qaeda still seek - to coerce us into submission. Of course, the
sensitivities of the bereft must be honoured. But the notion that a mosque
at ground zero hands a victory to the murderers has it exactly the wrong way
round. On the contrary, with every stone that rises, with every call to
prayer, the true American victory, the victory of liberty of conscience,
will be proclaimed. 

The writer is an FT contributing editor. His latest book is 'Scribble
Scribble Scribble: writings
<>  on
ice cream, Obama, Churchill and my mother'

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