PRESIDENT OBAMA STEPS UP, OFFERS STRONG DEFENSE OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY…. There was no political upside. Polls show Americans oppose the development of a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, while Republicans use the issue for shameless demagoguery, desperately trying to pit Americans against each other, hoping fear and bigotry will be worth a few percentage points on Election Day.

The easy course would have been for President Obama to steer clear of the dispute, and stick to the line that the Cordoba House at Park51 is a local matter, best left to local officials.

But Obama instead chose to ignore the easy course, show some genuine leadership, and take a firm stand in support of religious liberty. It was largely a symbolic gesture — whether the center is built or not is not up to the administration — but it was a powerful articulation of quintessential American principles, which a few too many of our compatriots have forgotten.

Last night, the White House hosted an iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan, a tradition started by Thomas Jefferson. Obama used the occasion to state his unequivocal support for religious liberty in general, and the Cordoba House project in particular.

“Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities — particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

“But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.

“We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led the response to that attack — from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us also remember who we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it’s a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion — and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.

“So that’s who we’re fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms — it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us — and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.”

It was as clear a demonstration of President Obama’s character and courage as we’ve seen in quite some time. There is some political risk in defending religious liberty when it’s unpopular, but he did it anyway. He didn’t hedge; he didn’t equivocate; he didn’t try to find some middle-ground compromise. He heard the words of small-minded demagogues and chose to respond with simple truths, honoring American principles while the political winds blow in the other direction.

Ideally, this wouldn’t be necessary. The country would celebrate religious liberty for all, and we’d recognize that it’s not our way to allow our neighbors to be second-class citizens.

But sometimes, Americans need a reminder about the values that make us great. Last night, the president gave us one.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.