The controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque" has become a clarifying moment in recent political history, when we get to find out whether conservatives and Republicans care about anything except winning the next election. If you've paid attention, the short answer is that many of them don't.
We found out only a few months ago that many Democrats and liberals don't really care about the First Amendment if that pesky "freedom of expression" stuff might arguably give Republicans an advantage. Now we're finding that while Republicans love to give lip service to "liberty," many of them don't care about freedom of religion or private property rights.
More on that in a moment, but first a few words on the controversy.
You'll notice that I put square quotes around the words "Ground Zero mosque" in my first paragraph.
That's because it's not at Ground Zero, e.g., the site of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. It's two blocks away.
And it's not a mosque, either. The proposed project is an Islamic community center, similar to a YMCA. It would include a prayer room — a "mosque," if you will — but it's also supposed to have basketball hoops.
These facts are important, because if you took the rhetoric of the opponents at face value, you'd believe that a huge mosque, complete with minarets, is going to be built over the ruins of the World Trade Center.
The whole controversy is a manufactured one. And if someone wanted to build a mosque, so what? In this country, we don't tell people they aren't allowed to build a church, or a synagogue, or a temple, on their own property, if they are following the relevant building codes and zoning laws.
What I think is most interesting about the controversy is what is says about Republicans.
But first, let's beat up on Democrats a little.
On Jan. 21 this year, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold the First Amendment in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the court voted 5-4 to strike down a provision of the law that blocked a nonprofit corporation, Citizens United, from airing a film that criticized Hillary Clinton.
For me, the scandal of the decision was that only a bare majority of the nation's highest court could bring themselves to strike down political censorship.
But that's not how many Democrats saw it. Many have campaigned for new laws to overturn the decision, on the ground that removing restrictions on corporate political spending might aid Republicans. Almost alone among prominent liberal commentators, Glenn Greenwald put principle over partisan political advantage and explained that the decision was correct.
But now Republicans are in the spotlight. And we are now seeing the spectacle of prominent Republican politicians who favor freedom of religion (if it's for Southern Baptists, in Georgia) and property rights (in cases where it's politically convenient).
Opinion polls show that many Americans oppose the so-called Ground Zero mosque. If a line of political attack is poll-tested, that's apparently all that matters.
So we have Newt Gingrich declaring that Cordoba House can't be built "so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." There's no word yet on whether Gingrich favors banning the Nation magazine until North Korean newspapers agree to run his op-ed pieces.
And we have the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto, who anchors his argument about Democratic tax policies by referring to his opponent as a "Ground Zero mosque champion." Why resort to reasoned argument when a smear will do?