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WILLIAM McGURN: Mike Bloomberg and the End of Tolerance – WSJ

August 30, 2011

This is precisely how American liberalism impoverishes society. It finds a disagreement, labels those on one side “divisive,” and applies a prescription that leaves people feeling even more divided. To which the answer is—surprise!—more of the same.

Mike Bloomberg and the End of Tolerance

Why New York’s mayor says there’s no room for religious leaders on 9/11.

MAIN STREET AUGUST 30, 2011

By WILLIAM MCGURN

Wasn’t it only a year ago that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unburdening himself of near daily sermons warning about our right to religious freedom?

What had aroused the mayor was the growing public opposition to a proposed Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. So everywhere he went, he preached the cause of tolerance. In a dramatic speech on Governors Island—against a backdrop of supporting clergy—Mr. Bloomberg asserted “there is no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us today can attest.”

Needless to say, God’s love and mercy were never in dispute. It turns out, however, that on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, at least one neighborhood will be off limits to ministers, rabbis, priests and imams: Ground Zero. The mayor has decided there is no room for any religious leader during the official ceremonies.

Mr. Bloomberg’s decision—first reported in this newspaper—has provoked calls for him to reconsider. The closer we get to 9/11, the louder and more heated these calls (and the counter-calls) will become. In other words, what we have here is the making of an exercise in modern American tolerance, where there is more ill will and resentment at the end than there was at the beginning.

Two defenses have been offered for the mayor’s position. The strongest is that previous 9/11 ceremonies have had no spiritual leaders participating. That said, the exclusion of religion from an important anniversary distorts an undeniable part of the 9/11 story, perhaps most vividly illustrated by its first recorded casualty: a fire department chaplain named Rev. Mychal Judge.

The other defense is more telling. Were religious leaders included, the mayor’s office would have to choose which leaders to invite and which not to invite. That, of course, is true of every invitation list. In this case, however, it may be just a clever way for a mayor whose reputation is not what it once was to avoid a fight over including a Muslim leader at the 9/11 ceremony.

It’s worth noting that this is a problem of Mr. Bloomberg’s own creation. Manifestly Islam wasn’t an issue two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when the city sponsored a huge interfaith service at Yankee Stadium billed as “A Prayer for America.” The service included an imam, whose words were prominently featured in the press accounts of the event—and cheered. The New York Daily News described it this way:

“They spoke ancient languages—Latin, Hindi, Arabic and Hebrew—and offered the traditional Muslim call to prayer, the sound of a ram’s horn and the ringing of a church bell. ‘Dear God,’ prayed Imam Izak-El M. Pasha [a police chaplain], ‘creator of all things in heaven and Earth, guide us this day to bring comfort to those who have lost loved ones, and give hope to those who are still waiting to hear.'”

If New Yorkers could be inspired by an imam when the wounds of the 9/11 attack were still raw, what would make this time different? The answer is Mr. Bloomberg himself. Having spent a good chunk of last year vilifying those who disagreed with him about the building of a mosque near Ground Zero, the mayor has made it far more ticklish to invite an imam to the anniversary event. You can see why people might conclude that it’s safer not to have any religious leaders there at all.

This is precisely how American liberalism impoverishes society. It finds a disagreement, labels those on one side “divisive,” and applies a prescription that leaves people feeling even more divided. To which the answer is—surprise!—more of the same.

That’s partly because the tolerance that liberalism emphasizes is not the tolerance that operates in our day-to-day lives, but an abstraction based on the incessant assertion of political rights. Back when Mr. Bloomberg was discovering his inner Erasmus, for example, he found himself asked to weigh in on plans by a Florida minister to burn the Quran on 9/11. “In a strange way, I’m here to defend his right to do that,” Mr. Bloomberg answered.

Then again, maybe not so strange. In a way, it invites a larger question about his whole mayorship: As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, have Mayor Bloomberg’s lectures about religious freedom and tolerance really left New York a freer and more tolerant place?

Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, notes that an overly political approach to legal rights makes little room for the real lubricants of a tolerant society: grace, accommodation and a decent respect for honest differences.

“The public square ought to be more than a place where people assert rights,” says Mr. Whelan. “If the fear is that the inclusion of religious leaders at a public commemoration is divisive, we’ve really lost something.”

We sure have.

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