That vicious stunt triggered passionate reactions from across the US political spectrum, most of them, reassuringly, against the idea. But Pastor Jones has none the less scored a victory for those hardy Christian zealots who support him. Pretty much every senior member of the government, including the president, got involved in the furore. Their offices were thereby demeaned.
Pastor Jones has also, by the implicit threat of sparking an inter-religious conflagration, heaped extra pressure on a New York imam to abort plans to establish an Islamic cultural centre near the site of the 9/11 attacks.
It is a tale that bundles together multiple grievances and different notions of what it means to be American. They must be untangled.
It is hard for those outside the US to grasp the scale of trauma inflicted by a mass-murderous terrorist assault nine years ago. Thankfully, there has been no serious follow-up attack. American civilians have been spared more atrocities. The US military has not fared so well. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, American soldiers were sent to fight and die in Afghanistan and Iraq; neither war has delivered the resounding victory over “terror” that was advertised by President Bush.
So US policy has been simultaneously a great success and a colossal failure. American civilians have not been hit at home, but they still feel more vulnerable.
It is difficult too, watching from a mostly secular society, to fathom how profoundly Christian identity is interwoven with mainstream expressions of American patriotism and how effectively that feeling has been channelled by conservative populists against President Obama. The notion that President Obama is anti-American and may be a secret Muslim enjoys currency in quite broad sections of US public opinion.
These trends suit America’s enemies and alarm its friends. Those who admire that nation’s historical commitment to the rights of man find it distressing to see the burning of holy books and the banning of houses of worship creeping into political discourse.
That distress should be a warning against complacency at home. Britain is not immune to virulent Islamophobia, as the English Defence League and the British National party prove. Elsewhere in Europe, mainstream politics is struggling to accommodate popular unease about a growing and visible Muslim minority. In France and Spain, this manifests itself as illiberal secularism, with bans on Islamic dress; in Switzerland, it shows up as a prohibition on minarets; and across the Continent opposition to Turkish membership of the EU is laced with anxiety about a mass mingling of Muslims and Christians that might ensue.
There is no easy distinction of left and right in these trends. What defines them is an angry, defensive reaction against an imagined threat to identity: national, secular or Christian.
This is the politics of division and fear and it demands a response, equivalent in passion, from the politics of solidarity and hope.