Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

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The Media vs. the Church

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Mormons Score a 9.6

The Indispensable Source

Harry and the Evangelicals

Returning to Normalcy
by Andrew Walsh

Right after September 11 journalists all over the country charted what seemed to be a startling surge in religious observance. The trend stories started when the Gallup Poll reported a six percent increase in church attendance the week after the attacks and the Barna Organization reported that its surveys recorded a 24 percent spike in church attendance in the final weeks of September.

Going to worship and giving blood became the twin tokens of drastic social change in an apparently transformed America. "Terror Attacks Could Change Paths of Faith," a headline speculated in the September 30 edition of the New York Times. Things were more affirmative in other cities: "‘Wake-Up Call’ Helps Fill Pews" reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 7. "People Seeking Solace in God; World’s Turmoil Hard to Handle," observed the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram & Gazette on October 18. And in the notoriously non-observant Northwest, the Spokane Spokesman-Review concluded on November 17, "Faith Restored: Church Attendance Soared Following the September 11 Attacks; As Everyday People Sought Out the Comfort and Hope of Religion."

In short, the revival of religion and public piety played big all over the nation in the extensive coverage of the aftermath the terrorist onslaught. But then, to the chagrin of many, church attendance sagged back toward normal levels.

Felix Hoover, the Columbus Dispatch’s religion reporter, was among the first to report that the church attendance boom might be evaporating. The headline for his October 13 story captured the uncertainty of the moment—one born of on-the-ground reporting that was not yet supported by survey data. "Many Turn to God, But For How Long?: Worship Might Increase Again This Weekend." After canvassing many religious leaders in Ohio’s capital, Hoover led with this assessment: "Mosque attendance is back up; church attendance is back down."

By late November and early December, stories were appearing all over noting that the post-September 11 spike had subsided. Here’s a sampling of the headlines: "As Attacks’ Impact Recedes, A Return to Religion as Usual," from the November 26 New York Times; "Post Attack Crowds Thin at Churches," from the December 11 Houston Chronicle; "Losing Our Religion?" from the December 16 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

By year’s end, the end of the trend stood confirmed beyond doubt. And on February 18 the Washington Times’ Larry Witham nailed it down with an extensive review of new survey data: "The outpouring of religious activity in America after the September 11 terrorist attacks has subsided, the crisis-driven spark not catching fire, according to polls and researchers."

Laurie Goodstein’s November 26 report in the New York Times exemplified the counter-trend stories. It began by recounting the experience of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, where attendance jumped by about a third for the first several weeks after September 11 and then fell back to normal.

"Americans, who after the attacks turned to religion in an outpouring that some religious leaders hailed as a spiritual ‘great awakening,’ have now mostly returned to their former habits," Goodstein wrote. "It looks like people were treating this like a bereavement, a shorter-term funeral kind of thing, where they went to church or synagogue to grieve," Frank M. Newport, the Gallup Poll’s editor-in-chief, told her.

Goodstein’s piece, which appeared in the Times’ running section "A Nation Challenged," was typical in carrying an undercurrent of surprise, both at the strength of the religious reaction to September 11 and at its rapid dissipation: "The return to religion as usual is a stark contrast to the thunderclap after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Stunned Americans flocked for prayer and comfort not only to their local houses of worship, but also to sports stadiums, public plazas and convention centers."

Stories following the "deflation trend" tended to quote experts from two professions: clergy and psychotherapists.

The Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era reported that local psychologists—who, as a group, tend to emphasize religion’s function as a coping mechanism—saw nothing surprising in a relatively short-term response to the crisis. "Everyday life-conflicts with a spouse, at work, getting the kids to do their homework—initially after September 11, people were talking about feeling anxious and unsure, but it didn’t take long for the issues immediate in their lives to be the issues they had to focus on," said psychologist Kenneth Ralph.

Similarly, reporters easily located rabbis, Catholic priests, and Islamic clerics who had little trouble adjusting to the notion that tragedies like the attacks of September 11 provoke sharp but short-lived bursts of religious observance. For example, the AP’s Rachel Zoll reported on December 17 that Rabbi Perry Netter of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles "agreed that it was naïve to think that clergy could transform American’s view of religion in a few weeks."

Netter saw attendance at Sabbath services increase by a few hundred immediately after September 11, then return to the average of 500 within weeks. "When you go through a trauma, where do you turn? Religion. Once the trauma has been assimilated, you return to the regular level of denial that we all live with, and then we go back to our habits," Netter said.

But it proved more difficult to find evangelical Protestants who didn’t think that something was wrong with that reaction.

"What I’ve learned out of all this is we are indeed a people of short memories," the Rev. Ken Myers, associate pastor of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told Paul Pinkham of the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union in one of a spate of "six-month anniversary" stories.

Disappointment over sputtering revival is a constant burden for evangelicals, who relentlessly scrutinize events for signs of God’s forceful action to change human hearts. "I would love nothing better than to see our nation in a long spiritual revival, and the possibility is still before us, Charlotte Observer "Faith & Values" columnist and Baptist pastor Al Cadenhead wrote on January 5. "Unfortunately, statistics indicate overall worship levels are now about where they were before September 11. Worship leaders are coming to terms with the fact that this spiritual revival we are hearing about does not necessarily translate into church attendance."

Other evangelicals expressed their disappointment much more forcefully. "After the attack, millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life," declared George Barna, the Southern California evangelical survey research guru, in a November press release. "Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance."

In fact, prominent evangelicals—Franklin Graham, Charles Colson, Laura Bush—were the ones who fueled the sense that something spiritually special was happening in September and October. "All across America people are asking questions about God, people are asking about the meaning of life," Colson told the Boston Herald’s Eric Convey on October 5. "Why are the churches full? It’s because something like this…focuses the mind."

Evangelicals yearn for a revival, sift the news for signs that it has begun, and compete to be first in line to trumpet the good news. For years, Franklin Graham, bidding fair to succeed his father Billy as the nation’s foremost evangelist, has been proclaiming that almost every major news story proves that revival is on the way.

Deeply rooted in the evangelical worldview is the sense that revival comes, to use Larry Witham’s phrase, from "a crisis-driven spark." The rub is that most sparks don’t grow into major fires. Yet even after it became clear that church attendance was dropping to "normal" levels, many evangelicals were reluctant to give up their cherished hopes.

"There’s no question that things are different now," the Rev. Willie George, pastor of Tulsa’s independent Church on the Move and the city’s largest church, told Bill Sherman of the Tulsa World on December 8. "We’ve seen a revival of sorts," he said, "an increase in spirituality, probably depth would be a better word. People are reassessing their spirituality."

Numbers or "depth"? Barna and Gallup, the major survey research organizations that track church attendance, tend to treat quantity as an accurate measure for spiritual quality, fixated as they perpetually are on the question of whether a revival is starting or running out of gas. But some reporters describing the religious reaction to September 11 did probe below the surface discussion of head counts.

Stories in newspapers as widely scattered as Massachusetts, Florida, and California suggested that significant numbers of "inquirers" were making their way into religious education programs in the wake of the bombings. "Numerous pastors say they have been surprised by the…surging participation in various church programs by people who before Sept. 11 had virtually no interest in them," Michael Paulson wrote in the October 28 Boston Globe. "Many of these new, terrorism-inspired seekers are young adults who had rarely stepped into a church, let alone expressed any desire to learn about Christianity."

A number of journalists reported as well that suburban megachurches—already tuned-up in the process of locating and assimilating hitherto unaffiliated newcomers—seemed to be doing better at holding attendance gains. And in a February 9 commentary piece Martha Allen Sawyer of the Minneapolis Star Tribune suggested that the "straight" religious revival was much less striking than a revival of America’s civil religion—a suggestion that deserves a good deal more follow-up.

But it was the evangelical temper that predominated. Ever since the 17th century, the cycle of proclaiming revival, celebrating it, and then displaying extravagant regret and condemnation for the human shortcomings seen as responsible for false starts, has been a central feature of American public life. Nor did the "jeremiad," the forceful denunciation of a people that often and repeatedly fails to do the right thing, die with Jonathan Edwards.

Since September 11, beneath the blare of patriotic brass, there has been a bitter undertone of journalistic reproach that we Americans have betrayed the tragedy by living out our normal lives.

On January 21, Cindy Stauffer of the Lancaster New Era sneered, "We have turned out attention from donating blood, going to church, and giving to others back to concentrating on ourselves and our old lives and shoveling snow, and, hey, whose turn is it to clean out the dishwasher and did we ever return that movie to the video store."

"At Last Our Priorities Are Back in the Wrong Place," read the headline over St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Kevin Horrigan’s column of February 24. "Well, shattered nation, good news: September 11 didn’t change everything after all…[T]he only legacy of September 11 is longer lines at airports, not longer attention spans. We still prefer to be amused and distracted rather than involved and committed."

And in a gimlet-eyed commentary piece entitled "Hoodwinked," the Portland Oregonian’s Rene Denfeld declared, "The headlines blare. We’ve changed. That’s been the media’s mantra of the past six months. Since September 11 divorce rates are supposedly down, marriages up. Young people are enlisting in droves. Churches are packed. We spend more time with our families and volunteer countless hours. We’re stockpiling guns and our medicine cabinets are bursting with Cipro.

"As one newspaper story put it, we are a "people more serious, more thoughtful, more committed to what matters…faith, family, neighbors, home, community. There’s one problem. None of it is true."

Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. Once again, America has failed to be converted.

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