Like Josh Marshall, I’ve been pondering the Gallup finding that Catholics are significantly more likely than “Protestants/Other Christians” to favor finding another location for the Park51 Islamic Center. Given that Protestants in the aggregate are, on most public issues, more conservative than Catholics–and given that American Catholics tend to recollect their own disfavored religious status in this country–why do 63 percent of Catholics want to see Park51 moved, as opposed to 49 percent of the Protestants/Other Christians?
I posed this question to my learned sidekick Andrew Walsh, who immediately replied with what seems to me the right answer: Catholicism very much regards the creation of a place of worship as the establishment of spiritual control over territory. Consider all the pagan temples that were transformed into–or built over as–Christian churches in Rome. Or the Grand Mosque in Cordoba–consecrated as a cathedral after Cordoba’s reconquest in 13th century (setting the stage for the mosquification of Hagia Sophia after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453).
Closer to home, the difficulty of decommissioning Catholic churches in America these days is precisely related to the fact that these churches were built to be permanent markers of geographic parishes. Catholics recognize the closing of a church as a species of spiritual surrender. By contrast, Protestants consider houses of worship more as convenient homes for where the congregants happen to be. For Jews, it’s all about the where the Torahs are, and Torahs are all about being marched from place to place. (These facts lie at the core of Gerald Gamm’s fine study, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed.) Jews are somewhat less inclined than Protestants to favor moving Park51.
In a word, Catholics are more likely than most of the rest of us to see Park51 as an assertion of power over territory beyond itself–extending to Ground Zero–and they don’t like it. Interestingly, Mormons favor moving Park51 almost as much as Catholics do–perhaps reflecting the LDS understanding of what it means to build a new temple for their Zionic communities. (Mormons are least interested in changing it to an interfaith institution because, well, Mormons don’t do interfaith.) As for the Muslims themselves, a 43 percent plurality favored building Park51 as planned–which doesn’t say anything much about how Muslims view mosque-building as such.
Of course, in America, you pretty much have a right to build your house of worship wherever you want, and to keep it open for as long as you care to and can afford to. Your understanding of the symbolic significance of doing so–or anyone else’s–is, legally, irrelevant.