"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "There is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."
This is the kind of divisive rhetoric you would hope might end a political career. But it looks like Gingrich hopes to use it to launch a presidential campaign. The only thing more shameful than his unhelpful diatribe is the lack of response from the Republican leadership.
Things have gotten uglier as a right-wing media campaign is in full swing to smear my friends Imam Faisal Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan. It is sad to hear politicians and pundits fabricate things about both of them in an attempt to stoke fear and hatred and make political gains.
The main issues at stake are clear, and how we resolve them will be a test of our nation's character.
First, does freedom of religion really mean freedom of religion? Or is it just freedom for my religion? Religious liberty is something we have fought for. Is it something we want to be defined by, or not?
Second, are Muslim Americans really Americans, or are they somehow second-class citizens with some rights but not all those afforded to people of other faiths?
Third, for those of us who are Christians, what does it mean to love our enemies as Jesus instructed us? Aren't Muslim Americans our neighbors?
Many political leaders, both Democrat and Republican, have said that while Muslims have the right to build a community center wherever they want, it is "insensitive" for them to build one within two blocks of ground zero. But this argument rests on an assumption that I refuse to make -- and all Americans should resist.
The assumption is that all Muslims -- because they're Muslims -- are guilty of the crimes committed by terrorists who claim the mantle of Islam. It is to say that all Muslims, including American Muslims, are to be seen through the lens of the 9/11 tragedy.
Does sensitivity to the families who lost loved ones in that vile, cowardly, and criminal attack include the families of the 59 Muslims who died? How must it feel to these families to have fellow Americans essentially blame them for the terrorism that killed their loved ones?
As an evangelical Christian, I do not want my actions to be judged on the basis of fundamentalist Christians -- some of whom have said and done terrible things.
Every religion has its fundamentalist factions, who distort true faith, prey upon fear and hate, and seek to use religion to seek political power. It is an all-too-regular tactic of those who hate religion to seek to define it by its fundamentalist extremes.
We must not contribute to that. I do not believe that I should be held accountable for the actions of all Christians everywhere.
Rauf and Khan have been outspoken opponents of terrorism, and the mission for the Cordoba House, the planned community center in Lower Manhattan, is one of peace and interfaith understanding. Their work should not be chastised as "insensitive," but rather praised as bold leadership for the healing our country needs. I know them both, and I know that is their hope and dream.
On 9/11, Osama bin Laden hoped to set himself up as the mouthpiece for all Islam to the West. Every time Gingrich, or others, try to get us to see all Islam through the eyes of Al Qaeda's attack, he helps bin Laden achieve that goal. The whole Muslim world hears our judgment of "guilt by association," and the United States becomes less safe.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush -- speaking at the Islamic Center in Washington -- warned that it would be a mistake to associate all Islam with the terrorists.
"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," Bush said that day. "That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."
Bush addressed the issue of Muslims who felt intimidated and were concerned about whether they could continue to practice their faith as they saw fit. "Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger," Bush said, "don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior."
These attacks against Muslims have not been limited to those who wish to worship in Lower Manhattan. They're mirrored in the alarming growth of anti-Muslim speech and action around the country.
The media outlets that stoke such hate speech are the same ones who want Americans to believe that President Barack Obama is not a Christian -- that he's really a Muslim. Like the "birther" myth, this has become a concerted campaign of the right-wing media machine.
I've known the president for 10 years, and I've had many conversations with him about faith. The president's Christian faith is both personal and intelligent, and it includes respect for other faiths and those with no faith at all.
Obama's testimony to the resurrection of Christ at his White House Easter breakfast was the strongest theological affirmation I have ever heard from a president. But Fox News didn't pick up on that.
The purpose of religion in the public square should be to transcend politics, articulate moral principles, appeal to our better angels, and bring us together to solve important problems. The ideological use of religion to drive a wedge between people -- and to use hate and fear to gain political points -- is an abuse of religion by politics.
It is beyond ironic that those who are called to be peacemakers are instead seeking to start a war on prayer.
[This article originally appeared at Politico.com.]
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com.