Did 9/11 touch many souls?

911DevilAs you would expect, reporter Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times includes a passing reference to the impact of 9/11 on the spiritual climate in America. I am looking around online to see if other mainstream newsrooms do the same.

Please consider this an open thread on the spiritual elements of the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage today. Please let us know what you see — the bad and, especially, the good.

Here is the passing spiritual reference from Simon’s story. I thought it was especially fitting to include this right after the reference to the high percentage of Americans who now believe, or are willing to ponder the possibility, that their own government played a role in planning the attacks. If the devil didn’t make the terrorists act, then who did?

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed “God Bless America,” it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. “Spiritually speaking, it’s as if nothing significant ever happened,” says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

As you would expect, I waded into this church-attendance myth back in 2001. It was a story that had to be checked out, after editors sent waves of reporters to church on the Sunday after the attacks. But, from the beginning, it sounded like a wave of anecdotes, to me.

Cross 911poemFirst you went to church. Then editors wanted the “Where Was God?” story covered. Then there were the stories and polls declaring that one form of absolute truth claim was just as evil as another.

Still, I have to admit I was surprised that the attacks had little or no impact at all. I would not have been surprised if they had had a negative impact on organized religion. But no impact? Here is the column I wrote at the time:

Sometimes the number is 38 percent and sometimes it’s something like 41.

For decades, Gallup Poll researchers have asked people if they attended worship services in the previous week. On rare occasions the percentage may soar to 48. It has been known to dip to 35. But that’s about it. There are seasonal ripples in the pews, but few big waves.

Then came the events of Sept. 11.

“Everybody started hearing all kinds of things from people all over the country,” said Mike Vlach of Church Initiative, based in Wake Forest, N.C. This evangelical support network … has about 5,000 churches on its mailing list.

“It seemed like we were talking about sizable changes in the spiritual landscape of the country. … We immediately started calling churches and asking, ‘What are you seeing out there? What are people asking? What are you doing in response?’”

Media reports joined the chorus, citing this return to faith as a ray of light in the darkness. Then the late September Gallup Poll … came out and the number was 47 percent, up from 41 in May. That was a rise, but not shockingly higher than the normal post-summer lift.

Vlach kept placing his calls and the news was good. Pastors said they were seeing larger crowds, including many inquisitive visitors. The atmosphere of uncertainty was lingering. “People have a heightened sense of alertness,” said a pastor in Indianapolis. A Chicago-area contact reported: “We have noticed a heightened desire in people to put their spiritual lives in order.”

The anecdotes were wonderful, but Vlach said he could not find strong evidence of lasting impact. Most church leaders were comforting their anxious flocks and welcoming any visitors who happened to walk in on their own. But few churches had tried to reach out to the un-churched.

Pastors preached one or two sermons linked to Sept. 11 and, perhaps, organized a memorial service. But that was about it, said Vlach. Few churches made sustained attempts to talk about life and death, heaven and hell, sin and repentance.

“I’m not sure that many churches even saw this as an opportunity to deal with these kinds of issues,” he said. “I’m not sure many church leaders are trained to think like that.”

By mid-November, the Gallup number was back to 42 percent.

Yes, 74 percent of Americans said they were praying more than usual, 70 percent said they had wept and 77 percent said they were being affectionate with loved ones. As the Gallup team said, Americans were seeking “spiritual solace.” But the data suggested that they were flying solo.

The evangelical market analysts at the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org) did a wave of national polling starting in late October, looking for statistical signs of revival. They found that worship statistics were following familiar patterns. Participation in prayer circles and Bible study groups “remained static.” Even among born-again Christians, they found a slight decrease in the number of believers who were sharing their faith with non-believers.

“After the attack,” said George Barna, “millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention.”

These seekers found comfort, but were not motivated to change their beliefs and lifestyles. The most stunning statistic was that the percentage of Americans saying they believe in “moral truths or principles that are absolute,” meaning truths that don’t change with the circumstances, actually declined — from 38 to 22 percent. In fact, only 32 percent of born-again Christians said they still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

“Our assessment,” said Barna, “is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner.” The Sept. 11th tragedy offered congregations a unique chance to “be the healing and transforming presence of God in people’s lives, but that … has now come and gone, with little to show for it.”

It seems that the larger story is the growth of radical individualism, with a secondary trend in which very traditional forms of religious faith survive and even grow among those who are counter-cultural. Of course, few things are harder for journalists to cover than trends that roll along at the level of individual choices that are not linked to movements and institutions. How do you cover an anti-movement movement?

Please help us watch the coverage today. Please use the comments pages to pass along headlines and URLs. Thank you.

Update 1: If you want the straight existentialist angle, which is a kind of spiritual viewpoint, check out this feature in today’s Style section (of course) in the Washington Post. Most haunting detail? The mourning mother’s desire to buy a Leatherman utility knife, just to know what it feels like in her hand. For a strange suburban form of existentialism, click here. How did the Post find the totally faith-free street?

Update 2: Back to the Los Angeles Times for a really cynical spin. Why face the reality of 9/11? Why change, when you can change the channel? That’s entertainment.

Update 3: As you would expect, the New York Times has produced another massive update on its stunning package of mini-portraits of those who have died. I have been reading through some of them at random and, I must say, they are amazingly faith free. Have I just had bad luck? Anyone else want to help me search?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • AL

    How in the world do you have time for so much posting? It’s all interesting. Here in Lexington, I was pleasantly surprised by the memorial service at Rupp Arena for flight 5191 victims…very, very much centered on faith in God.

  • Michael

    Maybe we are looking for the wrong things. Instead of looking for God-talk, we should look for the acts of loving and grace and charity and hospitality. That’s faith in action, not faith on the lips. I see faith EVERYWHERE in those NYT stories, it just isn’t self-congratulatory, public, “God talk” evangelizing faith.

  • Maureen

    But 9/11 signs of faith are everywhere. All the pictures I got forwarded on email. The holy cards and prayer cards. The graphics on people’s blogs.

    It’s like saying there’s no paint on the walls because the paint is white instead of being stripey.

  • Maureen
  • AL

    That’s true. Jesus’ ministry was also about serving and helping others, not just talking about God and prayer, etc.

  • James Davis

    One article that made me roll my eyes was in the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0911/p09s01-coop.htm?emc=intellicontact&m=1424308&v=22548892&l=1). It has a Pentagon chaplain saying she heard a supernatural warning while she was praying the previous night:

    “Vividly, I heard a divine whisper to ‘pray about the gathering of malice.’ I did just that, staying up until about 2 a.m. to pray for peace and protection.”

    This is the kind of story that makes me side with skeptics. Why didn’t the divine whisper rise to a shout: “TERRORISTS HAVE BOOKED FLIGHTS OUT OF BOSTON! CALL LOGAN AIRPORT AND HAVE THEM HOLD THE FLIGHTS!”

    I’m not inspired to read about how God allowed disasters, then inspired people to serve soup and Band-Aids.

  • Carol Louis

    Gathering crosses religious boundaries

    Here is a link for a front-page story in The STARPRESS, Muncie, IN.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “we should look for the acts of loving and grace and charity and hospitality”…”That’s true. Jesus’ ministry was also about serving and helping others, not just talking about God and prayer, etc. ”

    Yes, but tmatt has a good point. Jesus did more than just feed the 5,000 and talk about forgiving people. He also talked a great deal about how to obtain eternal salvation, and He died not to pay for our home heating bills but to pay for our sins.

    Christianity is about more than good manners, comunity involvement, and a generous spirit. True those things are all good and laudable, and sadly quite rare; but Christianity is MORE than just good works. If you remove the “God talk” you reduce Christianity to nothing more than County Social Services with pretty stained glass windows.

  • Chris Bolinger


    Cover story in today’s Akron Beacon Journal. (OK, so it’s not The Washington Post, but it is home to Terry Pluto, one of the best sportswriters in the country.) Subhead is “Hudson resident finds peace through his faith after surviving attack on World Trade Center”.

  • http://silent-springs.blogspot.com/ Silent Spring

    What I’d like to share is a story from a friend of mine who lives in Saudi Arabia. We worked there together for years. Those of us who knew and loved Saudis were appalled when the American media immediately pointed the finger and made all Saudis out to be terrorists (just like many people abroad think all Americans are fat and lazy and rich). Shortly after 9-11, when international communities within Riyadh began to be targeted with car bombs and other terrorist type activity, she sent me the letter below. In this ever increasing violent world in which we live, it’s imperative that we stand up — no matter how difficult it becomes — and find a way to walk out of darkness.

    Dear Friend…

    We held a prayer vigil last night on our housing compound, and Hesham came forward to express his regret and his sorrow that individuals from his own country and religious background had done such horrific things in the name of religion. So many people were touched by his genuine outpouring of emotion that afterwards many came up to him (even those who had never met him), to hug him, shake his hand and thank him for his words. They also reassured him that they viewed recent happenings not as an Arab thing, or an American thing, or a Christian thing, or a Muslim thing, but as a tragedy to all humanity, in the wake of which we must all stand together as members of the same global community.

    I believe that labels of any kind are a bad thing, and political, racial, cultural and religious branding can only breed hatred, fear and intolerance as members of each artificial, socially created group struggle to belong by excluding others. Patriotism may be thought of as a good thing; when it stirs people to hate others, it is a destructive thing. The time has surely come in the world when the old us against them mentality has to be set aside in favor of a single us, or we are certainly destined to continue to destroy each other in the name of whatever causes or ideologies keeps us from recognizing that we are all more alike than different.

    This is a sad time. I am sending this out to all of you hoping that each of us can find a healing way out of our sadness – a way guided by the true positive power of our common humanity. Although it may seem impossible at times, the power of friendship and understanding can truly conquer those dark, negative forces whose only purpose is to rob us of our love for each other and to replace that love with mistrust, hatred and intolerance.

    Healing does take time, but it will happen. I remind myself every day that being alive and on this earth is a privilege, and that it is up to me to ensure that I give as much love and understanding to others as I receive from others.

    Peace be with you…

  • Maureen

    Re: James Davis

    So basically, you’re not interested in hearing about anybody else’s religious experiences, unless they fit your guidelines.


    After any big disaster or fortunate escape, there will always be some people who will feel that they received warnings from God (or psychic flashes, for folks who’d rather believe in their own psychic powers).

    For example, I read that another 9/11 person who’d died had the feeling, for several months, that he ought to go to daily Mass, because God was calling him to do something big, soon. So he did.

    What’s offensive about reporting that? Why would it bother you, except in a “Hmm. Wonder what that means” kind of way?

    Now, I’m not saying the reporter should trumpet it, or declare that he’s sure that’s an AMAZING TRUE EVENT, or be all holy-go-pious about it.

    But it’s okay to report it. It’s part of how a lot of people experience the world, whether or not it’s true in a particular incident or in general. Why? Who knows? It’s just one of those mysterious things in life, with no easy answers.

    And I think the fuzziness of such lesser mysteries helps people deal with the more intimate mysteries of grief and pain and survivor guilt.

    But if such things bug you, you can skim past that paragraph of the story. Sheesh.

  • cheryl

    This Frontline production of “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” was featured on our PBS affliate on the evening of September 11. I believe it was a rebroadcast:


  • cheryl

    Here is a link to the transcript of Frontline’s “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” (I now see it was produced in 2002):


  • James Davis

    Maureen: Your personalized insinuations aside, you missed my point about the Christian Science Monitor article. Nowhere did I say I found the article “offensive.” Nor did I say such stories shouldn’t be reported. But they are reported better as part of the overall mosaic of experiences surrounding such a disaster. Not as a standalone effort to prove God was there all along.

    Next time you critique a review of an article, it might be helpful to read the article. In fact, it might be a good idea to read the review more carefully as well.