War in Iraq. War in Afghanistan. Over 14 million Americans out of work. Gulf oil spill. Widening gap between the wealthy and the debt-ridden, paycheck-to-paycheck families. The bitter polarization between blue and red states. The simmering summer of discontent.
It is easy to give in to cynicism, to lose hope, to become despondent in this time of doom and gloom. Yet it is when we think we have hit the bottom that something happens to lift our spirits, to remind us of the enduring values that make America great.
The Cordoba House planned near Ground Zero in New York would include a mosque and an interfaith cultural and community center. The plan was attacked by Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and other conservatives and political opportunists who considered it an insult to the 9/11 victims. After all, didn't Muslims kill almost 3000 Americans on that fateful day in September?
Many politicians, columnists and commentators came to the defense of the Cordoba House but none more forcefully and eloquently than the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. With the Statue of Liberty in the background and flanked by religious leaders, the mayor summarized what America was about and why the mosque could become a beacon of hope in a nation troubled by deep division and discontent. His speech reminds us why, in spite of the difficulties we are now facing as a nation, America will (to paraphrase William Faulkner) not only survive but endure. Excerpts:
“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it's sustained by immigrants -- by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker ..."
“On that day (9/11), 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn't want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish ..."
"Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here."
“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."
“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that."
"For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right ..."
"On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' 'What beliefs do you hold?'"
"Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city."
"Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest."
The Cordoba House may or may not materialize but the enduring values of America that mayor Bloomberg touched on in his stirring speech will continue to challenge and inspire us for years to come.