If Americans ever needed Atticus Finch, we need him now.
My favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, in large part because of the main character, Atticus Finch. Amid the racially charged populism in his small fictional town of Maycomb, he remained a stoic reminder of the values we claim to believe in. As his friends and neighbors struggled with their religious and secular predjudices, Atticus stood firm for both Christian and American values, eventually becoming the subject of scorn.
I search for that kind of quiet wisdom in our nation’s most contentious debates, and seldom find it. We live in an era when chest-beating demmogogues get all the attention and quiet voices of reason are ignored. Scream and pound your fist at a town hall meeting and the cameras will capture every moment. Quietly stand for what’s right, and you’re invisible.
Still, I can’t help but wonder what Atticus Finch would make of the debate over a proposed mosque 2 blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.
In the novel, Atticus didn’t lecture much, but in contentious moments offered soft-spoken lessons in human decency to his two young children. What would he tell his children if they expressed sympathy for the recent protest signs against the mosque that read, “All I need to know about Islam I learned on September 11th”?
He might sit that little boy and little girl down and tell them that you can’t judge the world’s 1 billion Muslims by the actions of a handful of men. Judging all people of a particular religion, color, or ethnicity by the actions of a few is the definition of bigotry.
If Atticus were around to watch a recent discussion on FOX News, what would he think of Newt Gingrich’s comments?
"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington," Gingrich pronounced, adding, “[and] we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor."
I suspect Atticus would calmly shake his head in dismay at the ways demagogues manipulate history. It was the organized national policies of the Japanese when they attacked Pear Harbor and the German Nazis when they persecuted the European Jews, not rogue elements within those countries. He would recognize that the only way the analogy works is to first believe that an entire religion and everyone who follows it attacked us.
What of the frequently heard observation, “Well, a Muslim country like Saudi Arabia would never allow the construction of a Christian Church?” Atticus would likely tell his children, “America doesn’t measure itself against a repressive, religious monarchy.”
And what would he make of the claim that a mosque 2 blocks from ground zero would be disrespectful to the families who lost a loved one on 9/11? My guess is he’d ask, “Then why are new mosques being opposed in cities and towns across America from Sheboygan, Wisconson to Murfreesburo, Tennessee? Are they also too close to ground zero?”
He’d probably also consider the innocent 60 America Muslims who were killed in the twin towers. What would mosque opponents say to the families of those victims? Do they grieve less than Christian or Jewish families who lost loved ones? Who is ready to tell them that a Christian Church or Jewish Synagogue nearby is fine, but a place of worship for their murdered loved ones can’t be allowed?
And what of the sex shops and strip joints just as close to ground zero as the proposed Mosque? No one is protesting those? Are we saying it’s okay to bump and grind nude for dollars near ground zero – okay to buy sex toys there, but not okay for Muslims to worship there?
And what a lost opportunity. We’ve asked the Muslim world, “When will the moderates stand up to the extremists?” Muslim moderates showed up in New York to build a peaceful place of worship and we kicked them in the teeth
Atticus would no doubt wonder all this. He understood what mob mentality, coupled with a fear of “those who are different” can do to people.
The final realization that might make Atticus sigh heavily and rub the back of his neck in worry: the same political forces opposing the mosques in Manhattan, Sheboygan, and Murfreesboro also support Arizona’s new racial profiling law, oppose affirmative action and gay rights, and routinely vote-in national leaders who upon taking office cut the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement budget.
But who am I kidding? If a modern-day Atticus Finch appeared on the streets of Manhattan to stand up to mosque opponents in defense of racial equality, religious freedom and tolerance he would be vilified just as he was in the novel. Members of the mob would concoct smear campaign mass emails linking Atticus with all that’s evil and wrong in the world. Angry talk show pundits and political opportunists would question his patriotism and religion
They would practice upon Atticus what former Clinton Administration aid Vince Foster described in his suicide note as “The politics of personal destruction.” Something that’s already been practiced upon those Americans planning the mosque
In reality, Atticus Finch was a product of fiction. That’s fitting. The voices of reason in the mosque debate seem as illusive as fiction.