A Brief Historical Interlude.

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Jonathan Chait makes a very good point about Newt Gingrich's insistence that building a mosque near Ground Zero constitutes a "double standard" that allows "Islamists to behave aggressively towards us." Here's the full quote:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

Chait notes that in this context, the "double standard" is the United States' tolerance and religious pluralism, which stands in contrast to the illiberalism of a country like Saudi Arabia. To Chait, what Gingrich wants to say is that since the United States is a "Judeo-Christian country," we should be allowed to prohibit Muslim places of worship, much in the same way that an Islamic theocracy like Iran would prohibit Christian or Jewish places of worship.

I've always been struck by the disrespect some conservatives have for core American principles like religious pluralism and freedom of worship. Especially since these are often the same conservatives who insist on "originalism" when confronted with any constitutional problem. I don't expect consistency from right-wing conservatives, but if they were going to pretend like their views were coherent -- and not just a combination of vulgar resentment and anti-liberalism -- then they'd at least note that the Founders weren't particularly keen to label the United States a Christian or Judeo-Christian country. Here's Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (seen above), which was approved unanimously by the Senate and signed by President John Adams on June 7, 1797:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

I'm struck by how uncontroversial this treaty was; the revolutionary generation still dominated national politics, and the Senate was home to many of the men who drafted and signed the Constitution. What's more, the text of the treaty was released to the public, and as far as I can tell, there was little -- if any -- opposition to Article 11. In the United States of 1797, no one took offense at the notion of an officially non-Christian government, even when the overwhelming majority of Americans identify with some flavor of Christianity. Of course, that's not to say that religious beliefs were irrelevant to the actions of leaders, but that most people recognized the government as essentially non-sectarian.

As Gingrich demonstrates, modern conservatives have a lot of antipathy towards religious pluralism, at least as it applies to Muslims. And to me at least, it's striking how little of it has to do with the country's history, and how much of it has its origins in very contemporary resentments and prejudices.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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