A new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, was published today in the Detroit News. This column will also be linked in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton newsletter here.
Faith and policy: Respect others’ rights, but also their values
FATHER ROBERT SIRICO
If such an award were to be given for the Most Contentious Religious Story of 2010, the two main contenders would undoubtedly be two Islam-related stories: the threatened burning of the Quran in Florida and the plan to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of ground zero in New York.
These stories remind us of a valuable lesson at the core of America’s founding. I am not speaking here of tolerance, but of what makes tolerance possible: the right to private property, and of something even deeper — the freedom such property allows.
The pastor in Florida is by all accounts a marginal figure whose fame has been aided by the media, fueled by the technologies that amplify any opinion or action. Soon, the pastor will recede from the spotlight.
The plan to construct the Islamic center is supported by numerous personalities, costs a great deal of money and will be a rather permanent fixture once erected.
At the legal and political heart of each of these occurrences is a bedrock principle: the right to private property, which is to say: the right of a pastor to destroy a book he owns and the right of a group of Muslims to build in lower Manhattan on property they own.
We do well to remember that the right to property is never merely the right to the possession of some material object in itself. Beyond possession, it involves its production, creation and disposition as well. And while the right to private property is not absolute, it is nonetheless sacred and to be respected both in culture and in law for reasons relating to the very nature of human beings. The right to property is just a smart idea because it ensures numerous other liberties that make for a free society.
I find the idea of burning a text considered sacred by others to be both stupid and odious. Other than offending people, I am not sure what the purpose would be.
I can better understand the purpose of building an Islamic center, though I think it is a very bad idea and one that is generating as much consternation in its own context as had even the threat of burning Qurans has in another.
Do these people have the right to do these things, all things being even?
Ought they to be doing this?
I’m afraid not.
And this brings us to the core of the issue: not one of right, but a matter of prudence and culture. Surely, the right to private property, eroded in so many ways by politics and legislation, is indispensable and necessary if we are to have a free society.
Yet, it is not sufficient if we are to achieve a good one. For that we require forbearance with one another, that is not mistaken for agreement. The greatest moments in our history have been when we have exceeded the requirements of the law to create a society that is more than “just” but is also good.
That sage commentator on religion in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put it about right when he asked how “society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”