Note: The post below was published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. However, several key concepts were edited out. So here is the full, unedited version.
Today’s controversy surrounding the proposed mosque near ground zero has an interesting parallel dating back to colonial Boston. Most early Bostonian colonists were Puritans, having fled England to escape persecution by the Church of England. To emphasize the ideological canyon between themselves and Anglicans, Puritans called their places of worship “meeting houses” instead of “churches.” They also banned public Anglican worship within Boston. However, not every resident of Boston was Puritan. Royalists, who were typically appointees of King James II to various colonial positions, often remained faithful Anglicans. Naturally, they wanted their own place of worship.
By 1685 tensions between the Puritans and Anglican King reached a breaking point. The King revoked Massachusetts’ charter of self-governance, and installed a Royal Governor (Sir Edmond Andros) with full authority over the colony. Governor Andros quickly organized an Anglican congregation and demanded that Boston Puritans sell land from their first cemetery to the congregation for a church. The Puritans refused as the cemetery contained the remains of their first generation settlers and was thus considered sacred ground. Exercising his legal might, Andros used eminent domain to confiscate a portion of the cemetery, then dug up and moved the remains of those buried there.
A few years later, when King James was overthrown, Bostonians imprisoned Governor Andros, then, sent him back to England. But by then, the Anglican church had established itself and found acceptance within the community. Although the original wooden church was eventually replaced with a more elaborate granite structure, and the congregation evolved into America’s first Unitarian congregation, King’s Chapel, and its legacy, still remains a vibrant part of Boston’s community.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the lessons that can be learned from those who’ve gone before us. With each new crisis or controversy we face, there seems to be a relevant parallel in our not-too-distant past. Drawing from the story of King’s Chapel I’ve come to this conclusion:
Construction of this Muslim center is an important step in surfacing the underground debate about Islam in America. Visibility into the operations of this center will be unprecedented because of the publicity received. Why not allow its members to show us their true colors? We’ve been promised a multi-cultural center where all are welcome to come, learn, and share. Perhaps this becomes the place where an American brand of Islam takes root that publicly denounces Sharia, Jihad, oppression of women, stoning, and all the traits that run counter to American ideals. Evolution of other religions has pivoted on similar events. If this turns out to be true, then the “sensitivities of families of 9/11 victims” will have been unfounded – much as the paranoia towards Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. In this case we can score one for American-style freedom and the wisdom of our forefathers in creating the First Amendment.
If, on the other hand, this center becomes the breeding ground for radical elements of Islam, and anti-American sentiment, then Muslim credibility will have been seriously eroded, and we will need to begin debate on whether Islam is right for America.
Governor Andros, who defied colonial Boston, was disgraced and deported back to England. But the church once viewed as unacceptable to Bostonians has now become a celebrated part of its heritage. Let’s see what comes of the current project. This may be a defining moment for America, and for its Muslim community.