The Idiotic Interfaith 9/11 Backlash

The Idiotic Interfaith 9/11 Backlash September 9, 2011

I know I promised a scifi vs fantasy post next, but I’m delaying it for one that is timely and a little more germane to this blog.

A model of interfaith outreach

Today, the hullabaloo over the exclusion of religious figures from New York City’s 9/11 memorial service made the front page of The New York Times. Scrolling through my ‘Religion’ folder in Google Reader, I’m still seeing post after post from Christians expressing outrage. Let me try to address some of the reactions briefly.

When I first heard about this ‘scandalous’ neglect, I assumed Bloomberg had nixed a religious component because he didn’t want the tenth anniversary embroiled in a controversy about whether an imam would be an appropriate co-presider. I certainly don’t doubt the Pamela Gellers of the country would have made that fight a heckuva lot uglier than this one is.

But it turns out the NYC decision stemmed from more than a desire to avoid controversy. Bloomberg is just sticking with the now-traditional format of the memorial. From the Times story:

For a decade, New York City has conducted the same ritualized ceremony on each anniversary of the attacks. The heart of the ritual has been the reading aloud of the names of the victims. In 2003, the victims’ children read the names; in 2004, it was their parents; and in 2007, the honor went to first responders.

The names are read in a continuous stream for hours, with four breaks to allow moments of silence at the times when hijacked planes struck the two World Trade Center towers, and when each tower fell.

This year, there will be six moments of silence, to acknowledge also the planes that hit the Pentagon and the ground near Shanksville, Pa., said Stu Loeser, Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary.

First of all, this description should put paid to the accusation that first responders are being excluded. They were the focus of 2007’s ceremony, but, in this format, wouldn’t be expected to take center stage every year. On the religion front: I think a significant proportion of the people expressing indignation are unaware of New York’s particular ritual and wouldn’t insist on grafting on additional elements. I’m sure most of them were picturing a gaudy line-up of speakers and politicians, to which one additional attendee may always be added.

That description is a pretty fair picture of how I imagine the national service (which will include clergy). And considering the controversy enveloping that event raises some questions about what religious inclusion is supposed to achieve. Long story short: the interfaith service Obama is attending was to have been held at the National Cathedral (until earthquake damage necessitated a move to a synagogue) and will feature all kinds of religious leaders from an Episcopal bishop to a Buddhist nun. The trouble is, there are no Southern Baptists, or evangelical ministers at all.

After all, they argue, evangelicals are the largest Christian subtype, so why shouldn’t they be represented when Buddhists get a slot? The Roman Catholics are only a hair behind, and also don’t have a speaking slot, but, so far, Fox hasn’t taken up their cause.  The fight threatens to devolve into a push for the kind of state-sponsored, theological census that I though was ridiculous when the American Atheists used it in their WTC cross suit.

So what does the problem boil down to? Are the Southern Baptists afraid that the Episcopal bishop will not adequately represent their theological views? Given the bland nature of these kinds of invocation, it seems unlikely the bishop will touch on predestination, infant baptism, or any other thorny theological issues.

This guy is unlikely to be needed

It seems more like different sects are using the event to keep score, or to burnish their own legitimacy. That’s the kind of impression I get from comments like this from Elizabeth Scalia at The Anchoress:

I am frankly surprised and disappointed that the NY Times reports [Archbishop Dolan] to be “untroubled” by the exclusion of clergy at Mayor Mike’s Memorial.

I really love and admire Timothy Dolan, but I feel like I want to grab his hand, announce “nobody puts Baby in the corner!” and haul him down to Lower Manhattan.

There’s a clear sense that Bloomberg or Obama are slighting and harming the sects they exclude. But churches shouldn’t be seeking the imprimatur and blessing of the state. Leave aside the constitutional issues; it’s bad for the church, which, I’m told, is supposed to offer a critique of worldly powers, not line up for photo-ops.

Plus, no one’s missing out by not hearing a particular sect’s watered down preaching.  Community depends on shared frame of reference, which is why the most moving sermons will be the ones prepped for individual parishes, not prime time.  So, everybody lay off Bloomberg, unless you have some clever suggestion about how he could have possibly avoided the overscheduled, self-serving mess the DC event is threatening to become.

Browse Our Archives