Just days after 9/11, President George W. Bush visited a Washington, D.C., mosque and said: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."
In today's hyper-partisan political climate, most (but not all) Republicans in Washington and a few Democrats have ignored those words, spoken less than a week after the worst terror attack on our nation's soil. At that moment, it would have been easy and expedient to demonize some Americans because of their faith. Today, what President Bush then eschewed has become the latest political fashion. It's what everyone seems to wear to the tea party.
Since there's so much talk about the U.S. Constitution these days, let's talk about what our forefathers confronted when trying to get it approved. Back in 1787, it was read but not universally approved. The anti-Federalists ranged from those with real questions about a federal government to those with just an over-the-top paranoia.
The legitimate concerns of the anti-Federalists led to the Bill of Rights, the 10 constitutional amendments that guarantee our individual freedoms.
The Founders encoded the two foremost freedoms in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech "
Surely every school-aged child knows that immigrants came to America as one fifth-grader put it "To worship as they please, and to make others do the same." She was right. The Puritans were a bit intolerant of other faiths. We had a ways to go to achieve true religious tolerance.
In 1960, with his candidacy on the line, John F. Kennedy faced a group of protestant clergy in Houston, Texas. He was Catholic, and Catholics "couldn't" be president only once had one been nominated, and he lost in a landslide (Al Smith to Herbert Hoover, in 1928).
Kennedy, to his credit, addressed the issue head on: "I believe in an America," he told the ministers, "where the separation of church and state is absolute. I believe in an America where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
This week President Barack Obama, a Christian, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Jewish-American, stood up for the First Amendment right of Muslim Americans to build a house of worship. They did so knowing it might produce a backlash.
Indeed it has. "This is not about the freedom of religion," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the Republican Senatorial Committee. It was, he insisted, about the men and women who died at Ground Zero.
Translation: Since some Muslims are terrorists, all Muslims (except those we buy oil from) are tainted, and we need the Cornyns of the world to remind us to be outraged and intolerant.
Never mind that Muslim Americans also died on Sept. 11. Never mind that Muslim-Americans are fighting alongside Christian and Jewish soldiers, and men and women of no ascribed faith on the battle lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Never mind that the Islamic cultural center is being built by Americans, for Americans.
This opposition is really just engaged in political fishing: cast aspersions and reel in the votes. It's about Election Day 2010. For a "victory," the demagogues would steer us into an amoral abyss. To feel "holier-than-thou," they would sever one of the principles that anchors our Constitution.
"This" is most definitely about Freedom of Religion, about the First Amendment, and about nothing else. Absolutely nothing else. "Being sensitive" has become the Republican tea party code word for "you're different and not a real American."
A disregard for facts what is being built, where it's being built (two blocks and not visible from Ground Zero), and why it's being built is insensitive to the very Constitution they invoke but obviously don't understand.
Are we to reverse engineer the First Amendment? Isn't it strange that this concerted, coordinated assault on our most precious Constitutional right is coming from the very hypocrites who last month were assailing "judicial activists" for not adhering to the Constitution?
Is there no core American value they will not jettison, no principle they will not throw overboard just to win an election?
We should heed John Kennedy's warning to the Houston clergy:
"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, and a contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.