Spring 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
    It's Baaack...

Religion and the Awakening

Repaving the Arab Street

Bishops in the Dock

Faithless Ireland

No Love for

The New Dominionist Politics


Without Benefit of Clergy

Cirque d'OCA

No Standing for It




Without Benefit of Clergy
by Samuel Dunbar Livingston

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned New York City’s 10th anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, his decision not to make a place for clergy in the official ceremony triggered howls of outrage from several kinds of conservatives.

“It is time that Mayor Bloomberg hears from all of us that this deliberate insult to the faith of Americans, and indeed to God himself is inexcusable,” an American Family Association newsletter thundered on August 30, after the story broke.

Bloomberg, who had developed his own clergy-free method of honoring the victims of 9/11 in the course of many previous anniversary observances in New York, wasn’t inclined to ask forgiveness.  He justified his position as a practical solution to potential conflicts over selecting which of a multitude of religious leaders might be chosen to officiate at a public ceremony. 

“There’s an awful lot of people that would like to participate, but you just can’t do that once you open it up,” Bloomberg said during his weekly radio show on July 29. “So the argument here is, it’s elected officials and those who were there at the time and had some influence.”

Since Bloomberg took over as mayor of New York from Rudy Giuliani on January 1, 2002, clergy have never been an official part of the 9/11 memorial service at Ground Zero.  Instead, the service has always focused on moments of silence at the times when each tower fell and on the reading of the victims’ names.

Despite the long precedent for clergy-free commemorations, Bloomberg’s choice triggered significant backlash on the 10th anniversary, when the entire nation was paying attention. Political figures, interest groups, and religious leaders weighed in from all over the country but intriguingly, few complaints were heard in New York itself.

The contrast points to significant regional differences over what and how Americans want to remember the 9/11 attacks. “Ten years [after 9/11], any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart,” Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times September 8.

For conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, the omission of clergy seemed outrageous. “I’m stunned,” wrote Tim Wildmon, President of the American Family Association in a September 2 Huffington Post article. “This event affected the whole psyche and soul of the country, and you are going to have no prayer? What’s a memorial service if you are going to leave God out completely? It seems kind of hollow.”

But for long-term supporters of church-state separation, Bloomberg’s move seemed perfectly appropriate. “While a non-sectarian prayer delivered at the event would surely be constitutionally acceptable and appropriate for the event, it is by no means required,” Don Byrd of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty responded in his blog September 6.

The Bloomberg administration held firm and emphasized the inclusion of humanist and spiritual values in the ceremony. “The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature,” said Bloomberg spokeswoman Evelyn on August 25, repeating the administration’s mantra.

Many New Yorkers liked Bloomberg’s approach. “I don’t think we have to be ‘denominational’ to achieve spiritual meaning. Consider for instance that the new buildings and memorials at Ground Zero are constructed to allow a wedge of sunlight every September 11th to shine at 8:46 AM on the footprint of the destroyed North Tower,” said religion scholar Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, a prominent New York Catholic, in a contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith blog on September 7.

“9/11 was not a religious event,” Stevens-Arroyo, who teaches at Brooklyn College, claimed. “The bombers of the WTC in NY and intended attacks on other symbols of US power pursued terrorist aims, not religious ones. Similarly, public commemorations for this attack are not so much moments to worship God, as they are invitations to reflect on human morality and humanity’s capacity for transcendent meaning.  It is simply not true that only the clergy can express this transcendent meaning and give it a definable shape.”

Bloomberg’s desire to steer clear of the profusion of religious options in 21st-century America wasn’t widely shared—even in New York—in 2001, in the immediate wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In both New York and Washington, extensive ecumenical panels of clergy were marshaled to lead the mourning, standing beside elected officials, and each occupying the spotlight briefly.

Just three days after the attacks, President George W. Bush took to the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, an Episcopal Church, to address the nation as a choir sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic (“Glory, glory Hallelujah…”) in the background.

Billy Graham gave the sermon and other parts of the service were performed by a lineup of other Abrahamic clergy: the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick; Houston megachurch pastor Kirbylon Caldwell; Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, rabbi emeritus of Washington Hebrew Congregation; and Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, Imam, Islamic Society of North America.

Under Mayor Giuliani, New York’s five-hour “Prayer for America” at Yankee Stadium two weeks after the attack was no less religious. It included a rainbow of many faiths—Roman Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs—along with elected officials and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. There were two invocations, scripture readings, two benedictions, the blowing of the shofar, and numerous prayers from different traditions.

Given the positive reaction to clerical inclusion at these two events, why is it that Mayor Bloomberg believed that he should not bring clergy from different religions together in one place or even to make any mention of religion to remember our country’s most devastating single loss since Pearl Harbor?  What happened to the widespread religious fervor embraced by our nation’s leaders in the face of a great threat?

“9/11 was this moment that we came together, and it lasted about three-and-a-half minutes,” wrote Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion in Public Life at Boston College, in the New York Times on September 8. “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.”

America’s loosely defined but omnipresent “civil religion,” at which a vaguely defined deity is often called down to bless America, 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,” Wolfe continued.

In New York, top religious leaders such as Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, entered the fray to say that they weren’t offended by Bloomberg’s decision.

With controversy surging nationally around Bloomberg’s anti-clericalism, the big issue locally was an attempt by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to muscle Bloomberg into including various past and present New Jersey public officials in the Ground Zero service.

“If we allow New York to make every one of these decisions with just New York, no one from New Jersey would be there. That’s my job. I’m standing up for the people of my state,” said Christie to the New York Post on August 18.

While the Post published a perfunctory editorial lamenting the exclusion of clergy from the service, like the Daily News it focused on this local rivalry rather than Bloomberg’s “secularist” move.

Two things emerged clearly from the local coverage. First: Very few public figures in the region have much appetite for a tangle with Michael Bloomberg. Second: A man very much of his time and place, Hizzoner reflects the powerful norms of religion in public life that were asserted in the middle of the twentieth century in places like New York.

Identified as a Reform Jew, Bloomberg is consistently low-key about his own religiosity. And he has repeatedly and forcefully articulated a vigorous sense of the importance of keeping government and religion well separated, most recently in backing the New York Housing Authority’s recent decision that a court decision obliged it to ban religious services in the community rooms of its project.

Bloomberg laid out his views most clearly in a talk delivered on August 3, 2010, amidst another celebrated church-state controversy, the construction of the proposed “Ground Zero mosque.” Surrounded by a galaxy of clergy of different faiths standing on Governor’s Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background, he delivered a passionate defense of the rights of religious groups to pursue their faiths without government interference and insisted that government and religion should not mix.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another,” Bloomberg said, in a Daily News story reported by Adam Lisberg. “The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.”

For Bloomberg, religion is important, but always private, a domain of individual and group choice.

But many others, especially non-New Yorkers, disagreed vociferously when it came to commemorating 9/11. They insisted that religion plays a key role in American national identity, whether or not politicians recognize it.

“We’re not France, Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we’re not,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in the New York Times on September 8. A few days earlier, Land had dismissed Bloomberg’s scruples as “the mindless secularist prejudice of the political establishment on our nation’s Eastern Seaboard,” in an interview published on his own organization’s website.

On the religious right, many denounced Bloomberg’s stand as a classic liberal move to overcompensate for sensitive individuals. The Southern Baptist Convention, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and the Family Research Council, the American Family Association all issued “action alerts” to their members warning them of Bloomberg’s attempt to uproot religion from national mourning. They cited the critical role religious groups played in the immediate recovery after 9/11 as grounds for the legitimate role religious groups should play now on anniversaries of the attack.

Naturally, the religious conservatives attracted criticism in return. “No sane American would think to turn such an event into a new front in the nation’s ongoing culture wars, but with the cooperation of news media organizations who are as fearful of offending them as the politicians who court their favor, conservative Christians did just that,” Jacques Berlinerblau, director the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, wrote in a September 12 column in the University of Southern California’s Trans/Missions.

 It is true that the mayor of liberal New York City may be very inclined to take steps to ensure no one group feels excluded and discriminated against.  Bloomberg chose “none” over “all” rather than cater to many faiths and risk offending some.

It is important to note that New York did not “own” the 9/11 remembrance in 2011. Other major cities in America devised their own very different ways of remembering the tragedy, many of which included elaborate and inclusive rosters of religious leaders. 

Washington’s National Cathedral held religious-themed observances led by the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, a Buddhist nun, an incarnate lama, a Hindu priest, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, and a Muslim musician. 

Similarly, the City of Boston—one of the airliners that struck the World Trade Center was hijacked from Boston—sponsored a memorial event that included a common prayer led by 17 religious leaders. “We understand the meaning of this society, that this is a pluralistic society and that this is a way to bring harmony to society, to work with one another,” Imam Talal Eid, executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, told the Boston Globe on September 11.

“Boston is a different scale and ego,” said David Hastings, president of the Massachusetts 9/11 Commission, when asked why Boston took a completely opposite approach to the memorial than New York City.

The personal beliefs of current political decision makers seem to affect the outcome. “The microphone will not melt if you say a prayer,” former Mayor Giuliani, snarked as he weighed in on his successor’s clergy ban at the National Press Club in Washington on September 7.

Interestingly, at the New York commemoration itself, President Obama stepped in to play a high priestly role. He proclaimed that weekend, Friday the 9th through Sunday the 11th, to be National Days of Prayer and Remembrance. When he took the podium he read Psalm 46:1-10, which begins “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

So if Mayor Bloomberg designed the memorial along secularist lines, the President was aware that not all of America saw it that way. By uttering carefully shaded religious language, Obama inserted religion at the memorial, despite Bloomberg’s no-clergy policy.

What is to be made of this controversy? Is it a political, social, or religious phenomenon? If nothing else, the passionate reactions show that Americans are not neutral, but that they hold strong and differing opinions.

Even though the coverage has dissipated, at least until next September, the function of religion in our national identity remains a source of constant debate. 

“I’m sure Europeans and Australians think Americans are crazy when it comes to religion, and they are,” Father Kevin Madigan of St. Peter’s Church in New York told a reporter from Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia.

“If Bloomberg were to invite one priest, he’d have to invite ten to reflect various Christian denominations that flourish in the U.S,” Paul Toohey of the Telegraph reported on September 10. “And that would mean he’d also have to invite a rabbi or two. For balance, he’d then have to invite a few imams. And there was no way in hell that was ever going to happen.”

“It seemed easier just to get God out of the picture altogether,” Toohey wrote. “But this is America. God is never out of the picture.”

Americans may get a little bit crazy when it comes to religion and interpret attempts to keep religion out of public life as offensive. Even decisions framed purposely to avoid controversy are often seen as an offense against freedom, or even a betrayal of the country’s traditions, or as one political party stabbing another party’s values in the back.

Open expression of religious belief by government officials, religious conservatives often insist, has a positive, productive function, especially in times of national crisis.

“When America and the allies invaded Europe on D-Day in 1944, President Roosevelt led the nation in prayer on a national radio broadcast for 10 minutes asking for blessing for our troops. So this is not a partisan issue, and it’s not just a current fad,” said Ken Klukowski, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, to CBN news September 7.

And yet as stories like this one remind us, religion has just as much potential to divide Americans. And, on specific questions, whether religion unites or divides is still often a matter of perceptions rooted in important local realities. What seems obvious in New York, seems outrageous in Nashville. And vice versa.

There’s little evidence to suggest that this will change soon.


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