Outright expressions of religious bigotry are pretty rare in American politics. Even the most religiously bigoted political party in American history, the antebellum American Party, was known as the Know-Nothing Party because its members were ashamed to own up publicly to their anti-Catholicism. Not so the National Republican Trust PAC.

Right up on its website NRTPAC has placed what will earn it a place in American political infamy. A former student of mine who works in the Republican trenches and has seen a good deal of hardball for all his tender years, was appalled. “This is probably the worst, most offensive political ad I’ve ever seen,” he wrote in an email. “It really embarrasses me.”


NRTPAC describes itself as “an independent organization to help promote American values and support federal candidates for Congress, Senate and the Presidency who share those values.” Executive director Scott Wheeler, a veteran right-wing media attack dog, was on Fox a couple of days ago to promote the ad.

It’s plainly intended to benefit the Republican candidate for governor of New York, Rick Lazio. Along with his consiliere, Rep. Peter King of Long Island, Lazio has come out swinging against Cordoba House, the 15-story mosque and Muslim community center intended by a widely respected New York City imam to be a monument to religious tolerance two blocks from Ground Zero. Lazio’s Democratic opponent, New York AG Andrew Cuomo has spoken out strongly on the other side. So have Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Chuck Schumer,and former Mayor Ed Koch. In late May, the Lower Manhattan community board voted overwhelmingly to approve the building.

Now in my book opposing Cordoba House does not necessarily make you a bigot. You could take the position that, given that the al-Qaeda bombers were acting in the name of Islam, it’s
just too sensitive a matter to locate even the most irenic, inclusive Islamic Center that close to Ground Zero. Just as locating a Catholic convent on the grounds of Auschwitz was seen by the Jewish community as offensive.

But the NRTPAC ad is equivalent to the Jewish community equating all Christians with Nazis: “They sent us to the death camps, and now they want to build a church on sacred ground? Where we weep, they rejoice. Join the fight to kill the church!” The NRTPAC ad is Islamophobia red in tooth and claw.

Will the ad succeed in turning Cordoba House into a winning Republican issue in November? Religious liberty is something dear to Americans–and they continue to believe that Muslims must be included under its umbrella. As a recent Pew poll showed, where large majorities in Western European countries support prohibiting Muslim women from wearing full veils in public, a large majority of Americans oppose doing so.

But what’s insidious about the NRTPAC ad is its use of American civil religion–the “sacred space” of Ground Zero–to justify its antipathy to Muslims. To its credit, the Bush Administration was at pains to make clear that the “war on terror” was not a war on Islam.  Let’s see if there are any prominent Republicans who have the guts to act similarly, and denounce the NRTPAC ad for what it is. 

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