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There, the sign that says “Sharia,” the hand-drawn letters dribbling down in streaks as though they were bleeding. And there, another sign—this one reading “No Mosque at Ground Zero” in patriotic red, white, and blue.

And there, the off-duty policemen come to join in, and there, the bikers up from Pennsylvania, and there, the microphoned speakers crying out “This is our cemetery”—“This is sacred ground.” And there, the film crews watching like hawks for violence, and there, the on-duty policemen, also watching like hawks for violence, and there . . . and there . . .

Flags and shouts and placards and confusion. The whole messy, strange, inspiring, disturbing thing—an August 22 rally against the building of a mosque near the site in New York where the World Trade Center once stood. Organized by the Coalition to Honor Ground Zero, the rally brought a few thousand people out to protest Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative: a plan to build a $100 million Islamic mosque and community center, thirteen-stories high, in glass and steel, where a building damaged in the attacks of September 11 once stood.

Nearly everyone in America seems to have opined on this situation already. Cheering it, fearing it, sneering at those who object, mocking those who favor the building of the mosque. President Obama was for it, before he was against it: first giving a speech about religion and our constitutional system so high-minded that it was audible only to bats—and then, as criticism mounted, hurriedly explaining that he wasn’t actually lending his support to the project. That is not what he meant at all. That is not it, at all. The man is turning into J. Alfred Prufrock, here before our eyes.

Perhaps New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg deserves credit, then, for saying straight out, and sticking to his position, that the mosque “is as important a test” of “the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime.” Indeed, he added, “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.”

And yet, there’s something in that Bloombergian line that puts one’s back up. Something condescending, superior, and hectoring. Something of the school marm and, more to the point, something of the 1950s high-liberal technocrat who just doesn’t like the messiness of human interaction. And if we could reach down to the root of the mayor’s error, we would have some understanding of how religion actually works in a constitutional democracy.

Of course, the first thing that has to be said about the building of an enormous Muslim center so close to the destroyed towers is that it’s wildly offensive. And the second thing to be said is that it’s wildly constitutional.

The offensiveness looks like this: Regardless of how it is intended, it will be perceived by radical Muslims around the world as a giant monument, in the heart of the beast itself, to their success in attacking America. Indeed, it will be perceived by many Americans that way. The funereal and memorial emotion that embraces one on a visit to the Ground Zero site will be weakened—poisoned, just a little—by the presence of this new, grand construction.

Yes, there have been other mosques in the vicinity for years, but they are small, ordinary things, not this grand statement. And yes, the organizers of the project insist that they are moderates, with a history of intra-religious cooperation. So what? Muslim institutions do not have a good track record for preventing themselves from being taken over by radicals, and moderation relative to the rest of Islam (as Ross Douthat has pointed out) isn’t moderation relative to the rest of America. People died here in the name of Islam, and we’re not really eased all that much merely because the people behind the Cordoba Initiative insist they hold a different kind of Islam.

Meanwhile, the constitutionality looks like this: The government really shouldn’t be in the business of regulating the ways in which the sheer existence of a religious building offends the public sensibility. “This is America,” President Obama intoned, “and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”

Yes, the New York City government is still refusing permission for the Greek Orthodox church destroyed in the attacks of September 11 to rebuild. And yes, one wishes that the unshakeable commitment to religious freedom didn’t get shaken so much when the topic is, say, forcing pro-life pharmacists to issue morning-after pills or requiring Catholic hospitals to perform abortions.

But the principle remains sound, even when it is violated or honored only in the breach. It isn’t simply that religious institution have a right to be treated no worse than other institutions. They have, in fact, a right to be treated better , with more deference, by the government under our constitutional scheme. If such an institution wishes to be offensively bloody minded, there isn’t—or, at least, there shouldn’t be—much that an American government can do about it.

Which is almost what Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama (initially) said. Almost. They rightly insisted on the constitutional principle that government could not intervene, but then they drew the conclusion that the discussion should thus be over—and that only bigots and un-American theocrats would continue agitating against an Islamic center near Ground Zero.

The self-congratulation in all this is a little hard to take—a kind of belief that, unfolded in full, would betray a vast sense of superiority to both those culturally backward Muslims who must be offered such tolerance and to those culturally backward Americans who must be lectured on tolerance.

The deeper problem with this line, however, is that it assumes government is the only actor: the only power, the only arbiter, the only law in America. If the government can do nothing, than nothing can be done.

The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a column that might be the model for this kind of thinking about public affairs—this way of feeling about public affairs. Curiously calling for ex-President Bush to enter the debate and calm the people current-President Obama was incapable of soothing, the column was profoundly bothered by the mere existence of criticism. The failure to build the mosque, Dowd perversely declared, would be a triumph for those who hate America: “the ultimate victory for Osama and the 9/11 hijackers is the moral timidity that would ban a mosque.”

Real democracy is messy. It’s got protestors and agitators and banners and manners and morals and financial pressures and gossip and policemen on horses keeping an eye out to make sure it doesn’t turn violent. Oh, yes, it’s also got government, but apart from paying for those policemen, government ought not to be too deeply involved as these things sort themselves out. If what the Muslims want to do is not illegal, than government should have nothing more to say.

That does not mean, however, that everyone else should also have nothing more to say. The attempt to build a large, new mosque and Islamic center anywhere near the site of the World Trade Center is so offensive, so bizarre, and so deliberate that it should be stopped.

And stopped it will be, through the offered mediation of New York’s Archbishop Dolan, or the skittishness of the financial community, or the disturbance of the neighbors, or the anger of the protestors, or the refusal of the building contractors. It will be messy, and it will be sharp. Inspiring and disturbing, with loud shouts on the streets and a few quiet words in the back rooms.

But that’s democracy—it’s how things get done when you accept that government shouldn’t do everything. The churches and the synagogues have long experience with this kind of democratic negotiation. Time for the mosques to learn how to do it, too.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.