In his remarks at the Iftar Dinner at the State Dining Room of the White House, President Obama continued to discharge his responsibilities as Storyteller-in-Chief with distinction.
He clearly illuminated fundamental principles of the American polity. He highlighted their long history, and he applied the principles with their historical resonance to a pressing problem of the day.
Yet, the politics of the day, concerning the so called “Ground Zero Mosque,” confused matters, and his attempt to respond to the politics has added to the confusion. I hope in the coming days and months he addresses the confusion. But, in the meanwhile, we need to remember what the issues are apart from the silly interpretations of the 24/7 news machine. His remarks should be deliberately considered.
Today, remembering the significance of the speech. Tomorrow, a consideration of the confusion which followed. Obama welcomed his guests, including members of the diplomatic corps, his administration and Congress, and offered his best wishes to Muslims from around the world for the holy month of Ramadan. He recalled the several years that the Iftar dinner has been held at the White House, as similar events have been hosted to celebrate Christmas, Passover and Diwali. He observed how these events mark the role of faith in the lives of the American people and affirm “the basic truth that we are all children of God, and we all draw strength and a sense of purpose from our beliefs.” The events are “an affirmation of who we are as Americans,” with a long history, illuminated by Obama by citing the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Act of Establishing Religious Freedom and remembering the First Amendment of the Constitution.
This tradition of religious diversity and respect has made the United States politically strong and open to vibrant and multiple religious traditions, the President noted, making us “a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in stark contrast to the religious conflict that persists elsewhere around the globe.”
Yet, he recalled, there have been controversies, most recently concerning “the construction of mosques in certain communities -– particularly New York.”
And then he pronounced his strong commitment. “As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. (Applause.) 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 unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”
He continued to explain the implications of his commitment. We must remember the tragedy of 9/11 and honor those who risked their lives in response to the attacks. We must remember that our enemies do not respect the rights that are fundamental to our country. “In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims killed on 9/11.” And recalling his Inaugural Address, he emphasized that “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus —- and non-believers.”
Did the President then endorse the Park51 community center? Actually if one reads carefully, he did not. But he did, more importantly, declare that he viewed the building of such a center as not only an American right, but also as an affirmation of American political identity - this without endorsing the specific details of the construction of such a building in such a place.