By Jack Miles
THE American presidency is a "bully pulpit", as Theodore Roosevelt called it, and many lately have been calling for the current President to make more frequent, higher-profile visits to that pulpit. They don't use the word preach, but clearly they want more than routine statements from No-Drama Obama.
With two wars in progress and an economic depression barely held at bay, it surprises many that Barack Obama has spoken from the Oval Office only twice.
But the bully pulpit is also a perilous pulpit. The Republicans who have been whipping up national opposition to a planned Islamic centre in lower Manhattan have clearly done so in hopes of provoking Obama into statements in defence of the planned Cordoba House that could be used to make him seem "soft on terrorism" or indifferent to the bereaved of 9/11.
They have been baiting him, in other words, and through him the Democratic Party, for tactical gain in the November congressional election. But if the President were to say nothing, he would harm American national security by fostering abroad the dangerous illusion of a US "war on Islam", an illusion that must be dispelled in the interest of American national security itself.
Strategically, the American goal and the goal of all who want to check an Osama bin Laden must be to make him seem small, pathetic and deluded. Building an Islamic centre near the scene of al-Qa'ida's greatest crime is a beautiful way to do just that.
How can Obama say what needs to be said for his country's sake without playing into his opponents' hands? Their disregard for the truth approaches the fantastical. Forty-one per cent of Republicans believe Obama is an illegal Muslim immigrant. A recent Newsweek poll reported that 53 per cent of them believe he "sympathises with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world".
But this escalation is no joke. Obama's opponents have challenged the sacrosanct First Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion to all, and the almost equally sacrosanct 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection of the law to everyone born on US territory. This is madness, with cunning electoral method in it. The question is: will it backfire?
When Glenn Beck stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and proclaimed, "America today begins to turn back to God", was the effect not more campy than compelling?
When this chubby, preppy white guy in a crewcut went on to tell the huge, all-white, conservative and largely Christian rally that he was "reclaiming the civil rights movement", was I alone in asking, "Reclaiming it from whom?"?
The intent, transparently, was to suggest the US had turned away from God when it allowed an illegal Muslim immigrant and black racist to slip into the White House. But though the Republican base, or some of it, may buy this, will the electorate as a whole?
My dream, my aggressively, combatively, passionately patriotic American dream, is of the day when busloads of children paying their visit to the 9/11 Memorial stop at Cordoba House as just another well-established stop on the tour bus. The tour guides will explain that the attacks were intended to lure the US into a religious war but it didn't work. Instead, the US rallied its own loyal Muslims and fought fire with water.
Given New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's staunch backing, it's likely that Cordoba House will be built, that New Yorkers will quickly find better things to do than keep worrying about it, and that it will become a kind of proud footnote to an American tragedy.
Nevertheless, it's deeply saddening when, in the pursuit of short-term political gain, lies are fabricated that prey on prejudices, undermine the most precious and deeply held values of a nation and subvert its national defence. Americans do tend to treat the American agenda as a sacred cause for all mankind. Yet relations between world Islam and the US lie undeniably close to the centre of what is at least one of the larger cultural encounters of our time.
Understandably, a mood of fear has taken hold among US Muslims because this year their major holiday, Eid al-Fitr, ending Ramadan, falls on September 11. But I am cheered the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles, rather than surrender to the fear, has proclaimed "MuslimServe", a day of public service led by but not confined to Muslims: "On September 11th, let's show that we can rise above prejudice and hatred and be the kind of conscientious citizens who give back to our country." It seems at times as if US Muslims are just going to keep saluting until their fellow Americans agree to raise the flag for them.
As for Obama, the whiplash created by the ginning up of the "Ground Zero Mosque" furore has thrown him off stride, but he may not have lost his footing entirely. Obama has long had a canny sense of when to stand aside and give his opponents just enough rope to hang themselves.
Jack Miles is a visitor of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, and senior fellow for religion and international affairs, Pacific Council on Religion and International Relations.