Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I’m Losing Respect for Sen. Lugar

First, a confession. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) has been my Senator since before I could vote. In fact, he was elected to his second term two years before I turned 18. And, though I’m a Democrat, I’ve always thought very highly of, respected, and even supported Sen. Lugar. But my respect has begun to wane. In recent years, I’ve felt that Sen. Lugar lost his ability (or desire) to think independently and became just another Republican. From time to time, he’d recapture some of the spark that made him so distinguished, but those moments seem fleeting. And over the last two years, he’s been all too quiet as Congressional Republicans have become simply the party of “no” without any new ideas or direction.

Now as you might be able to guess, I’m the kind of person that routinely contacts my Congressmen to tell them what I think about certain issues. I make sure to have a good idea of what I want to say and to try to make my point cogently and concisely (yeah, I know…). And I try to remember to call to say “thanks” when they do something that I like, not just calling to complain or to oppose something.

So a few weeks ago, I read or heard that Sen. Lugar said that he was not going to take a position on the Park 51 community center (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”). This struck me as wrong, especially given Sen. Lugar’s expertise on foreign affairs and his position as a senior statesman among Congressional Republicans. Therefore, I called his office and expressed two thoughts: First, I told the staffer to whom I spoke, that I strongly supported the right of those who want to build Park 51 and that the decision of whether doing so was a good idea should be left to that group; second, I explained that I thought it was important for a Senator with the seniority, expertise, and gravitas of Sen. Lugar to make a forceful statement recognizing the right to build Park 51 and the importance of freedom of religion to our country and society. The staffer thanked me and said that he’d pass my message to Sen. Lugar.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received the following letter from Sen. Lugar’s office a few days ago:

Thank you for sharing with me your opposition to a proposal to construct a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero.

While this matter will be decided by the City of New York and New Yorkers, I agree that the site’s proximity to Ground Zero, where more than 2,600 innocent civilians lost their lives, as well as the concerns of surviving family members, should be taken into account as the City considers whether or not to allow this project to move forward. I will continue to closely follow this matter.

Excuse me?

Not only did my support somehow morph into opposition, but Sen. Lugar apparently now believes that the right to construct a house of worship or cultural center is, at least in part, dependent upon the concerns of third parties? Funny, but the last time that I read the First Amendment, I missed the part where it said “except when the exercise of Freedom of Religion might offend someone else”. By Sen. Lugar’s formulation, does that mean that construction of a Catholic church should depend on whether parents of children might be offended or whether the sensitivities of Jews (for 2,000 years of claims of deicide and such things as the Spanish Inquisition) might be impacted? Do Muslims have the right to build a mosque in a community that lost soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan? Do Japanese have a right to erect cultural centers in Honolulu? Do southerners have a right to preach or waive Confederate battle flags north of the Mason-Dixon line? Do Mormons have a right to posthumously “baptize” non-Mormons? Do Christians have the right to proselytize me? This kind on nonsense can go on forever.

I still don’t know if Park 51 is a good idea. But that’s not my decision or concern. Those of the right who are so worried about erosion of the Constitution need to stop and think about what freedoms we’re really trying to protect and which parts of the Constitution they actually do like (besides the Second and Tenth Amendments). And people like Sen. Lugar need to grow some proverbial cojones and stand up for the rights that our Constitution guarantees to all citizens, not just to the favored majority.

Over the years, Sen. Lugar has done a lot of good things for America, Indiana, and even the world. But his position on this matter further erodes my support and respect for the man.

One other point. When I received Sen. Lugar’s letter, I called his office to tell them that they’d made a mistake and to move my tally from oppose to support. I got angry at the staffer to whom I spoke when he didn’t offer much of an apology for my position being misidentified in the first place. And then I got very angry when he repeated, several times, that Park 51 is a mosque. I told him that it was my understanding that it was a cultural or community center that would have a room for worship but that it was not principally a mosque. I felt that he expressed derision at this point of view. I told him that I thought it was important that decisions like this be made on the basis of facts and honesty and not talking points being thrown about by Islamophobes or Fox News. He said that he’d pass my message to Sen. Lugar. Unfortunately, I no longer trust that the messages from constituents are being accurately reported to Sen. Lugar; instead, I suspect (and I’d say that the letter that I received is evidence) that he’s hearing from his staff the messages that they like for him to hear.

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