No clergy at ground zero ceremony

Yesterday, Bobby looked at media coverage of 9/11 commemorations. There are some interesting stories to be found in who was and who wasn’t invited and what people think about it. In Washington, the commemoration will be an interfaith service. In New York, clergy aren’t part of the program.

I wanted to highlight this Laurie Goodstein story from the front page of today’s New York Times. It’s very well written, as to be expected, and nicely characterizes the nature of the debate. But I do have a thought I’ll save for the end. Here’s the beginning:

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.

The story goes on to give voice to a variety of people. We hear from someone who suggest these fights represent widespread Balkanization in religion and politics. We even get a mention of civil religion:

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, if everyone is going to be more concerned about their own special interests, their own rights.”

It’s funny, but my memories of Yankee Stadium worship service led by Oprah Winfrey couldn’t be more different. It marked a huge controversy in my church body, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. Observing how poorly the media understood the situation in my church had a huge effect on me and my decision to write more about religion.

The article goes on to talk about the rituals New York City conducts on 9/11 anniversaries as well as the controversy that has erupted over those rituals’ lack of inclusion of religious figures.

We get quotes from people upset about things but also a mention that the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York and the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis have said they’re fine with the format for commemoration services. The article then goes on to discuss the interfaith worship service in Washington that will include other religious groups (such as Jews).

Like I said, it’s a good article and covers a lot of ground with an economy of words.

What is interesting, however, is to have an article that discusses differences between mainline and evangelical Protestants and gets into interfaith worship and civil religion and see no mention of the various Protestants who have a fairly well-fleshed out theology of avoiding civil religion and syncretism.

I mentioned my church body earlier and certainly Missouri Synod Lutherans not only don’t mind the format for the Ground Zero commemoration but support it, as Rev. William Cwirla does here. Reformed theologian Michael Horton argues that Christians shouldn’t seek to be included in such events here. Confessional Protestants (including Lutherans, Reformed and Presbyterians) have a really interesting take on navigating church and politics. Part of that involves a more robust worship in our congregational settings (I just received from my congregation this note: “On the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks, Immanuel’s Divine Service (10 a.m.) will focus on the lessons and psalms appointed for a day of supplication and prayer. We will pray repeatedly for peace, and hear from God’s Word that in a world of violence, our refuge is God and our future secure.”). It also means we avoid civil religion and syncretistic worship.

Just because you never hear about these Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed and others with a “Two Kingdoms” approach to such situations doesn’t mean it’s a fringe belief. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod alone is larger than the Episcopal Church, for instance. It’s certainly understandable how this viewpoint gets left out of stories hungry for political conflict and “on the one hand, on the other” or “he said/she said” type setups. But in the aggregate, you can see how it ends up seeming like all Protestants are fighting for worship in the public square or that politics is the dominant prism through which to see American religion.

In The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, Darryl Hart writes about how academia and the media view Protestants as mainline vs. evangelicals, which both fails to appreciate how similar those two groups can be (if unaligned politically) but also neglects the swath of Protestants that aren’t as political or engaged in civil religion. It’s a good book to read to see how the typical view of Protestants seen in the media can be too simplistic.

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  • John Paul Todd


    I couldn’t agree more w/ you, both in content & spirit.You are close to “the eye of the storm” of confessional Christianity’s search for how to speak into our present American society.
    Thank you so much for posting at this critical time. There is so much more to the story than the secular press for the most part is able to cover.

    John Paul Todd

  • http://!)! Passing By

    You posted this while I was reading the Goodstein article and, yes, her look at “the civil religion” is very helpful. While I’m not big on generic faith, it is a sort of social bond,or perhaps it expresses a social bond already existing; in either case, Goodstein’s story illustrates how radically it’s broken down in the past decade.

  • Mollie

    Passing By,

    Yes, it’s fascinating to contemplate how much things have changed — from the Oprah interfaith service to the no clergy service. I thought the NYT article did a good job of showing that and allowing some people to comment on that.

  • Dave G.

    Ten years later, any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart.

    To me, that’s the story. That’s the take away ‘what books (or IPads) will be discussing 50 years from now’ focus. Not if it is or isn’t right to include or not include this or that. But it is interesting to note the change. And not just from 9/12/2011. But from 9/12/91, 9/12/81, and on and on. Or for that matter, on 12/8/41. How things change from one, to another, and then yet another. Always interesting, at least to me. And it would be interesting to see a story that rolled up its sleaves and looked at the longer history of how these things have happened over the ages in American life. That would be framing the story, at least IMHO.

  • Timothy Winterstein

    Journalists who write about religion would be more than well-served by reading Darryl Hart’s book. His “Confessionalist/Pietist” distinction works far better than the common “liberal/conservative” one.

    Pr. Timothy Winterstein

  • baber

    Significant history. First spiritual-but-not-religious Oprah leading a service and then no service at all. First religion degrades to generic “spirituality”–non-committal, anti-institutional sentimentality–and then it disappears altogether. Who’s surprised? Religion can survive without a body–without the Church.

  • baber

    Oops. That should have been “religion CAN’T survive without a body”

  • Clarence

    Sorry for being off-topic, but what is with the Orthodox steeple on this book?

  • Jerry

    “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.”

    Deeply rooted in human nature are these two opposite tendencies. As Mollie pointed out in this post, Terry covered in the last post about the Rabbi and as come up about Muslims, there are those in all religions who assert the primacy of religious doctrine. In the case of 9/11 it was and is about an event involving the entire body politic where our unity was the emphasis.

    But I have one question about this particular controversy. Has any reporter actually interviewed the families of those killed on 9/11 to verify the claim that the ceremony is organized around them as has been claimed? Because if the event is, in effect, a memorial service for those killed then paying heed to the families’ wishes would be paramount. And then the statement that groups are not included to respect the wishes of the families verified.

  • Mike O.

    Has any reporter actually interviewed the families of those killed on 9/11 to verify the claim that the ceremony is organized around them as has been claimed?

    I happened to see this op-ed in today’s New York Daily News from a sister of one of the WTC victims, who prefers the 9/11 ceremony as it is. Obviously, one person is not necessarily representative of the families as a whole.

  • MJBubba

    Clarence, I do not know what Mollie had in mind, but the photo put me in mind of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church, which was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Towers, and has not been able to get permits to rebuild from the Port Authority of NY & NJ.

  • MJBubba

    Clarence, the photo is also the book cover, which is topically related to the post, though I think more nearly related to the post about the memorial planned for the National Cathedral (which is now being moved).

  • Eric Shafer

    (Hopefully) related comment – Mollie’s Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is part of a pan Lutheran 9/11 gathering on Sunday evening at Holy Trinity (ELCA) Central Park West in New York City. It is an Eastern District (LCMS)and Metro NY Synod (ELCA)sponsored event. Eastern District LCMS President David Benke does not shy away from such events s folks know who have followed the story of his participation in the Yankee Stadium rally in 2001.

  • Judy Harrow

    If you zoom out to the bigger picture, this is a real case of “you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.” Metro New York is a place of kaleidescopic diversity. Although we don’t have the highest proportion of immigrants of any American city here, we do have immigrants from the most different countries (cultures, languages, religious backgrounds …). We also have many members of new and alternative religious movements. It would not be feasible to represent all, even if the service took all 24 hours of September 11. But if the people planning the event get selective, they will get the opposite (but equally hostile) reaction, as witness the controversy around the service in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Here’s another possible reason for excluding ALL clergy from the NYC event: inviting any means another emotional debate over the inclusion of a Muslim imam – and you all know what controversy that would re-ignite.

    So perhaps the political decision was, why kick the sleeping dog amd get him growling again?

  • baber

    Over lunch our agnostic kid expressed what I think is behind Bloomberg’s remarks about the illegitimacy of the government “forcing religion down people’s throats” and which represents the view of the majority who oppose religious ceremonies at the Sept 11 event. It’s the slippery slope. As he understood it, giving religious people a foot in the door, letting them put on public displays and they would ram through creationism in the public schools, prohibit abortion, and push through their whole conservative agenda. He also asserts that the costs–including the potential risk of empowering evangelicals to promote their social and ethical agenda–outweights the benefits which, he says are negligible. He he, I think, representative of secular opinion.

    30 years ago, before religion had become politicized, no one would have given any thought to having some kind of religious ceremony at an event like this–or worried that it didn’t represent his own particular denomination. Why cared? It was an appropriate thing to do, pious noises should be made, and it didn’t much matter by whom. Nothing hung on it. It wasn’t a matter of promoting a social or political agenda. It was just part of the ceremony.

    Will we ever get our innocence back? Will religion ever be politically detoxified?

  • Julia

    30 years ago, before religion had become politicized, no one would have given any thought to having some kind of religious ceremony at an event like this

    That’s not really true. Religious leaders have always spoken up about moral issues that affect political/ legislative actions. Episcopalians were very influential and during my lifetime most president were Episcopalian. The Protestants didn’t seem to mind, and nobody cared what the Catholics and Jews thought about it. So – the rest of us just put up with it as a sort of civic religion.

    It seems that when the separation of church people started making their stink, it empowered non-Episcopalians to speak up, too. [Not that there's anything wrong with being Episcopalian, mind you]

  • baber

    I agree that religious leaders have always spoken on moral issues but I think that in the past there wasn’t the same sense that they were threatening or that having some clergyman deliver an invocation at a public ceremony was in some way getting us down the slippery slope to theocracy or “ramming religion down people’s throats.” It was just part of the ceremony–not something that anyone took seriously.

    Also I’m thinking of Robert Putnam’s results in American Grace. Currently he says about half of Americans say grace regularly and about half never say grace–and that, he says is a good predictor of their views on a range of ethical and social issues, and where they stand politically. He contrasts this with 40 years ago when a person’s level of religious belief/participation didn’t predict anything: Democrats and Republicans were equally likely be be religiously committed church-goers.