Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque: How the Far Right Betrays Reagan's Legacy

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
Ronald Reagan40th president of US (1911 - 2004)

The folks who bring you the Facebook page, Being Conservative, posted a rather interesting poll recently. But, first they declared that there should be no mosque on Ground Zero. They stated that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have allowed it and neither should we.

After I chose to vote in the poll (I voted, “Yes” as I have no problem with a mosque at ground zero. After all it was Al-Quada that is responsible for the terrorist attack and not all Muslims). The next screen advised:

Our mission is to promote common sense, conservative governing. As Ronald Reagan decreed, we need less government, less taxes, less spending and more freedom.

I have always been amused at how the far right has tended to treat Ronald Reagan as somewhat of a patron saint of conservative idealism in recent years. Certainly during his administration he was not their favored son. As Ralph Reed stated during an interview following Regan’s death in 2004, the former president had not been conservative enough for the sensibilities of what is often referred to as the religious right in this country.

Unlike many of my liberal colleagues I like Ronald Reagan, the failure of the cynically named Reaganomics not withstanding. The progressive elements in our country have tended to vilify him unreasonably at times just as the far right will continue to vilify Obama. Usually such folks have a provincial understanding of how our government operates and how things actually get accomplished in a bogged down and widely diverse democracy such as ours has become.

I like Ronald Reagan for many reasons. Chief among these is he was a good old fashioned anti communist and last of the true libertarian leaning Republicans. Reagan was mostly a true libertarian as opposed to the likes of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and others whose religious worldview makes them dangerously authoritarian in many ways. There is way more to being a libertarian then being anti government and anti tax – much more.

As all politicians, some of Reagan’s policies were misguided. Economically he was not the strongest leader and his trickle down economics failed to ease the pain of recession that he inherited from both the Ford and Carter administrations. But, his policies of deregulation and the break up of the AT&T monopoly that occurred during his watch set the stage for the bubble of prosperity that we experienced during the Clinton administration. How soon we forget or completely ignore the achievements or successes of our leaders. As I have stated often every president is both a hero and a villain.

I like Reagan because he stood for the idealism of liberty despite the depiction by progressives who, dubbing him Ronald Raygun because of his so called Star Wars defense plan portrayed him as an evil war mongering imperial throw back. All you have to do is read any compilation of Reagan quotes and you will agree with most of what the folks at Being Conservative have said.

Reagan really believed that liberty will only be aided by less government, less spending and less taxes. I like Reagan but his seeming acquiescence to religious conservatives has always made me queasy. I do not see any possibility of true human liberty in an overly religious nation. Conservative religion is authoritarian in nature and is incompatible with libertarian ideals. This is one of the great disconnects between the Far Right and their espoused Christianity.

I find it disingenuous when people try to ascribe motivations and ideological certainties from the words of people who are dead and no longer with us. Whether we are quoting the words of Reagan, Jesus or some other notable individual the tendency to pull their words out of context and interpret them liberally for our own specific uses is too great a temptation. The Tea Party and Neo Conservative movements are experts at this type of misinterpretation.

So when someone asserts that Ronald Reagan would not have allowed a Muslim group to build a mosque at Ground Zero I have to ask myself whether that is true or is it just some angry hyperbole that is ethnically and religiously motivated? How did Reagan feel about the first amendment and the separation of church and state? The libertarian idealism that I perceive posthumously in the words of our late and former president decries this as false.

If Reagan truly asserted during his career that we needed less government (as Being Conservative asserts and as I am inclined to agree) then “not allowing” a mosque on this site would seem not in keeping with the stated idealism. In fact this would be the type of authoritarian intervention that Reagan was concerned about. Yet, we still need to contend with the peppering of religious sentiment in his rhetoric.

This type of attitude was more in keeping with what he believed to be true of Marxists and it was everything he stood against. I believe that I can assert emphatically that if Reagan were president today he would not allow a Marxist government such as the People’s Republic China to be the primary creditor of our national debt. In fact, it is dubious that we would have been doing any kind of commerce or trade with the PRC such were Reagan’s feeling about Communism.

What I can’t say for sure is how he would have responded to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. Reading Reagan’s speech before the Annual Convention of National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983 – the so called "Evil Empire" speech – it seems clear that Reagan held traditional Judeo-Christian attitudes about many things such as abortion and the mistaking of the god of deism of many founding fathers vs. the god of Calvinist Christianity, whom the evangelicals worship. He also seems to lack clarity on the secular nature of our democratic republic at times.

Reagan professed a belief in God and actually sent an amendment to the constitution to congress trying to get prayer put back in our public schools. So despite his rhetoric about personal liberty, less government and his overall libertarian values it would seem that the late president still sought – as do many conservatives today – to violate our fist amendment. Reagan even quoted the Quaker William Penn who, I believe, misguidedly stated that, “If men will not be governed by God, they will be ruled by tyrants.” After all who have been a greater tyrant throughout history then the god of Islam and Judeo- Christianity? This is the same god that many tyrants have claimed faith in and drew inspiration from.

I’ve got to say it’s not looking good for my libertarian hero here. This makes me sad. I have always drawn inspiration from some of Reagan’s most eloquent words regarding personal liberty and his distrust of intrusive centralized government, although I have had to choke down the nonsense about liberty being protected by rule of law under god.

To make this issue more confusing the same president that attempted to get prayer returned to our public schools had this to say before the Jewish congregation of Temple Hillel in Valley Stream New York on October 26, 1984:

We must never remain silent in the face of bigotry. We must condemn those who seek to divide us. In all quarters and at all times, we must teach tolerance and denounce racism, anti-Semitism, and all ethnic or religious bigotry wherever they exist as unacceptable evils. We have no place for haters in America -- none, whatsoever."

Reagan also had this to say regarding the separation of church and state:

"We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate.All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.At the same time that our Constitution prohibits state establishment of religion, it protects the free exercise of all religions. And walking this fine line requires government to be strictly neutral."

Ultimately it seems to me that the assertion Reagan would have never allowed a mosque at Ground Zero is quite debatable. The ire being raised by those opposed to the mosque can be easily interpreted as bigotry born of fear and Reagan himself most likely would have upheld the ideal that the government must be neutral. But, then again this is the same man who pushed for prayer in public school.

In the end I am uncomfortable with the assertion that Reagan would have supported such overt bigotry. I think it is easily argued that despite some of his misguided policies Regan still was a champion of personal liberty. Despite the invocation of our 40th president by conservatives of every ilk, they have actually betrayed his legacy. Reagan sought liberty and not the authoritarian manipulation of the far right that has become more and more overt in the years following his presidency.

Being Conservative continues to demonstrate that conservatives have elevated propaganda as ideology and while they are busy vilifying everyone left of their conservative center as socialists and big government liberals they have completely ignored the fact that the federal government has experienced out of control growth and rampant increased spending during 8 years when not only did we have a conservative president, but conservatives enjoyed a majority in congress as well.

The threat to personal liberty is greater than it has been since the McCarthy era and before. But, it comes to us not from the liberal or progressive do-gooders that the far right so fear, but from themselves. Let us remember the words of Ronald Reagan:

…all ethnic or religious bigotry wherever they exist as unacceptable evils. We have no place for haters in America -- none, whatsoever."

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