Ethical dilemma over building a mosque at ground zero in New York exposes some front lines in the culture war raging across America. First, it reveals agendas that become visible when comparing what people say to what they do. Second, it provides opportunity to compare the relative importance of values held by sides in the culture war.
Concerning agendas, most of the people who are pro-religious liberty for building the mosque at that location are anti-manger scenes on public sidewalks. A hidden agenda among many in this pro-mosque group may be counterbalancing their intolerance for one kind of religious expression with tolerance for another. Ironically, most of the people who oppose this location for this mosque are pro-other kinds of religious expression, such as prayer in Jesus’ name at public events. A hidden agenda among many in this anti-mosque group may be to promote one religion over another.
Regarding differing systems of values, ethical dilemmas reveal values priorities. Telling the truth is important. However, during Nazi occupation, many Dutch families hid Jews and lied to occupying forces. Telling the truth wasn’t as important as preserving those lives. The mosque at ground zero exposes competition between at least two important values: 1) National Dignity/Security; and 2) Constitutional Freedoms.
On national dignity and security, some believe allowing the mosque to be built at ground zero will underscore American pluralism and undercut popular support for America’s enemies. For those with overarching concern for America’s dignity and security, however, this mosque location will embarrass America, embolden her enemies, and encourage support for groups like Al-Qaeda. Based upon my personal experience among Muslims and upon what I am hearing from many scholars and reform-minded Muslim leaders, I consider the latter outcome to be the most likely.
With respect to constitutional freedoms, many believe that, in the interests of taste and national security, the government can zone against the religious use of certain private properties. For those with the overarching concern that religious expression should be private and free from public interference, however, such a zoning intrusion would be an unthinkable human rights violation of much greater concern than any dignity or security issues.
As in most wars, one side will win and the other side will lose. Such an outcome in this culture war would be unfortunate for all of America. Reaching a “diplomatic” solution so that both sides can win will require exposing and marginalizing hidden agendas and then accommodating and affirming both sets of competing values. In the quest for public image, the side that wins will likely lose.