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September 20, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Religion and the US President

One of the most intriguing stories to come out of the United States recently is the controversy surrounding the proposal to build an Islamic community centre in Lower Manhattan, and the effect of this on perceptions of President Obama.

Even more astonishing is many Americans’ (perhaps not unusual) reaction to this story—most notably Florida Pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn thousands of copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The media has played a significant role in failing to accurately potray the situation in New York. Their misrepresentation of the story has bolstered public outcry and the subsequent actions of extremists like Jones. It is important to set out the actual facts.

Firstly, the “Ground Zero Mosque”, as it has come to be known, is not proposed to be a mosque at all. The Cordoba Initiative was given permission by the relevant authorities in New York City to set up a community centre in the building of an old coat factory in Lower Manhattan.

Secondly, the Imam who heads the Cordoba Initiative, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has spent much of his life speaking out against radical groups such as Al Qaeda, teaching Muslims that they can worship according to the requisites of their religion, as well as co-existing with other faiths within the United States.

Thirdly, the community centre, while within the vicinity, is not actually at Ground Zero. Furthermore, there is no public recognition of a new neighbourhood called Ground Zero comprising of the blocks surrounding the site of the World Trade Centre. There has been little effort to define how far from actual Ground Zero an appropriate site might be, not to mention there is an existing mosque in the nearby area.

It is the rhetoric and specific labelling of the community centre as the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its opposition, and the subsequent tagging by the media, which has increased the salience of this issue within the consciousness of so many Americans. With President Obama speaking out in defence of the community centre, unsurprisingly the negative perception surrounding the story has had adverse effects on his administration.

Of course the recent BP oil spill and the continuing problems plaguing the US economy are the key determinants behind President Obama’s dangerously low poll ratings. However, the race and religion cards still play a significant role. A national poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in August found that 18 per cent of all Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. Not surprisingly, these figures are predominantly comprised of individuals opposed to the current President. When one takes into account the seven per cent rise from the 11 per cent who held this belief in March 2009—despite the President’s countless assurances that he is in fact a Christian—there is a clear correlation between the perception of Obama’s religious affiliation and his popularity.

This perception is exemplified by the ignorant slogans branded across picket signs at the September 11 “Ground Zero Mosque” protests. These proclaimed “No Obama’s Mosque”, failing to recognise that the President’s refusal to condemn the construction of the community centre stems from constitutional law, rather than his personal religious affiliation.

The US Bill of Rights specifically states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, and Obama’s comments regarding the community centre back this up. “As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

Further to this, for all the debate over where Obama’s personal religious affiliations lie, the Constitution—held in such high regard by most Americans—specifically outlines that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Of course, these words have been ignored throughout history, so despite being perhaps the most inappropriate subject of partisan debate, attacks on religion remain.

The first Catholic to ever be elected President of the United States, John F. Kennedy faced up to Protestant leaders at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association 50 years ago, where he gave a biting address on religious freedom. Kennedy told the audience that it was significant “not what kind of church I believe in—for that should be important only to me—but what kind of America I believe in.”

I think Time’s Nancy Gibb puts it best: “Obama does have a duty to speak, not about what kind of church he believes in but what kind of America… Sometimes the faith a President needs to show is faith in his own principles.” Despite evidence that suggests many Americans are centrally concerned with what higher power their President looks to, perhaps Obama has the opportunity, and even the responsibility now, to not once again clarify his religious beliefs, but to clarify his belief in the Constitution.

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