President Obama stirred up some trouble he probably regrets over his own dueling comments last weekend about the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. On Friday night, at a White House dinner in honor of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, Obama said “… Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And 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. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” Which is of course true as far as it goes.
The next day, while on a photo-op visit to Panama City, Fla., Obama clarified those remarks: “I was not commenting [Friday] and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding.”
But from the beginning, the debate over the mosque has been about the wisdom of its placement, not about whether the people who own the land have the constitutional right to build a mosque there if they wish.
I will stipulate that someone, somewhere, at some point in this debate, has probably said something along the lines of “They don’t have the right to build that mosque!” But that has not been the main thrust of opponents of the mosque’s construction, who have instead focused on issues of sensitivity — of “the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there,” as the president put it.
Sarah Palin has drawn fire for her opposition to the mosque, but from the beginning her statements were not about rights or legalities. She started off with a tweet that became infamous for its creative diction: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” And then: “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.”
So, why did the president on Friday speak as if constitutional rights were the real subject of the debate?
Maybe it was just his inner constitutional-law professor coming out. But it sounds to me more like another instance of Obama trying to refute an argument that isn’t being made. He employed a straw man without even pointing to the straw man; call it the understood straw man.
This is what makes Obama so infuriating to so many people — it’s not just that they disagree with him, but that he tries to de-legitimize their position by associating them with arguments they aren’t making.