The second Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York clergy members of many faiths joined elected officials at Yankee Stadium in a city-sponsored memorial ceremony that melded the sacred and the secular, replete with flags, prayers and tears.
Ten years later, any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has come under attack by some religious and political leaders for not including clergy members as speakers at Sunday’s official ceremony at ground zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in an interview that the planned ceremony only proved that New York was the “epicenter of secularism,” out of step with the rest of America.
“We’re not France,” he said. “Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we are not.”
Congressman Randy Forbes, a Republican representative from Virginia and a co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, sent Mr. Bloomberg a letter on behalf of the caucus members urging him to include prayer in the ceremony.
At the same time, some evangelical Christian leaders said they were outraged that an interfaith prayer service planned by the Washington National Cathedral did not include a Southern Baptist or other evangelical minister.
“In miniature, this is what’s happening to the whole country,” said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “9/11 was this moment that we came together, and it lasted about three-and-a-half minutes. The country went from a brief moment of something like unity, to complete Balkanization, and now we’re seeing it in religion and in politics, like in everything else.”
In a nation of unprecedented religious diversity, the United States once managed to navigate religion in public life with relatively generic acknowledgments of the sacred — a tradition often referred to as civil religion.
Ten years ago, the event at Yankee Stadium and a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral attended by President George W. Bush were conducted in that tradition, and they were held with no controversy to speak of. But now, Professor Wolfe said, “the civil religion, those informal kinds of agreements, can’t work if everyone is going to be litigious.”
And Fr. James Martin notes:
Excluding clergy from the official public memory of the day is almost willfully ahistorical. The clergy were a significant part of the events surrounding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, particularly in New York. To begin with, they were among the first groups to respond to the disaster at Ground Zero, with priests, ministers and rabbis on the ground from the earliest days. (By the time I arrived on Sept. 13, there were already several who told me that they had been ministering there since the 11th.) Members of the clergy presided over thousands of funerals and memorial services, a ministry especially evident in the case of the many firefighters and police officers whose funerals were celebrated in scores of Catholic churches throughout the archdioces of New York. Clergy from a variety of traditions provided guidance, comfort and solace for those seeking answers in the face of the death of loved ones, or simply in the face of tragedy. Religious organizations spearheaded charitable efforts both in New York and elswewhere. But most of all, the witness of the clergy on that day was embodied by Fr. Mychal Judge, O.F.M., who sacrificed his life in service to others. Fr. Judge, the Franciscan priest and New York City fire chaplain who was killed after racing into one of the burning towers to minister to firefighters, is listed as the first official casualty of the attacks on the World Trade Center: “Victim 0001.” Surely his public sacrifice warrants remembering the place of clergy–publicly.