Ten years ago this month, after a band of radical Islamists crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, religion surged to the forefront of our national conversation. The twisted, hateful beliefs of the terrorists came into sharp focus, of course. But so did the generous, life-affirming faith of their victims and the heroes who rushed to rescue them.
For many Americans, that faith kept them going in the weeks and months following Sept. 11, 2001. It helped grieving family members find consolation, motivated strangers to donate time and money to the rescue effort and even inspired many angry Americans to forgive the unforgivable and pray for peace.
Today, as we prepare to mark the 10th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, it seems only natural to acknowledge the role that this positive, life-affirming religious faith played in the attack’s aftermath. Too bad the planner of the nation’s foremost 9/11 memorial service disagrees: New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has banned all religious leaders from the city’s ceremony and mandated that the memorial be a strictly secular affair.
His decision caused an uproar when it was announced last week. Bloomberg’s staffers have responded by framing it in pragmatic terms. They argued that adding prayer and religious leaders to the service would take too much time, take the focus off the victims and their families and deviate from the format of earlier memorial services. Besides, they said, how would we ever decide which religious leaders to invite?
It’s true that inviting religious leaders to this sort of affair can be tricky. But it is not an impossible or unprecedented feat, as the city’s official, multi-faith “Prayer for America” service at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23, 2001, made clear. Although the format of the service struck some religious observers as too syncretistic, the image of Americans coming together across religious divisions to pray for their country made a powerful statement to the world: We still believe that people of different faiths can express those differences openly and live together in peace.
As for the idea that acknowledging God somehow detracts from the honor due victims and their families, it’s a curious claim, given that many of the victims were religious and many of their families are, too. For many of those left behind after 9/11, the past decade has been one of intense spiritual growth and a rediscovery of the precious gift of life — a gift for which they thank God. That’s not the story of all 9/11 survivors, of course, but given that more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, it’s a safe bet that a substantial number of the victims’ families would find comfort in some gentle references to faith at the memorial service.
Without such references, and without any of the heroic first responders whose supposedly distracting presence Bloomberg also has banned, the service may well devolve into exactly what the mayor claims he does not want it to be: soulless political spectacle. It’s hard to imagine how it will be anything else, given that nearly all the high-profile figures in attendance will be career politicians.
Bloomberg’s memorial is shaping up to be a perfect example of what the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus described as “the naked public square” — that sanitized civic space where mentions of God are not allowed and government officials and political ideologies rush in to fill the void, to assume the very meaning-making role in public life that they have forced religious institutions to relinquish.
The naked public square is proposed as an easy answer to the challenges of religious pluralism: just banish all the religious groups, the thinking goes, so none of them can complain. In reality, such a stridently secular approach expels the very voices we need most at times like these, the religious voices that add transcendent perspective to our political debates and immediate crises. Throughout our history, religious voices like those of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have challenged us to live up to our founding ideals, correct longstanding injustices and remember our common humanity even in the tensest times.
To banish those voices at a moment as important to America as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is not simply cowardly or insensitive. It is an affront to the very principle of unity in diversity that makes America great.