The best and most prominent reminder of the diversity of American Christian thought arrived on the New York City mayor’s desk this week, in the form of a petition with 62,000 signatures. It was written by that epicenter of hate speech, The Family Research Council (and City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx pastor). FRC’s beef? That the ceremony at the World Trade Center tomorrow will not include pastors or priests. Each year, in a ceremony format now a decade old, moments of silence break up the hours-long reading of names of those who died. Representatives from across the religious spectrum attend. But the petitioners want explicit prayers and they want them from their own leaders. (I’m sure Alliance Defense Fund is already at work on a lawsuit.)
As Laurie Goodstein wrote at The New York Times yesterday, there’s a “parallel controversy” that’s playing out over the interfaith prayer service that will be held at the episcopal Washington National Cathedral. Conservative evangelical leaders have long disliked that national events are held there and not on their own turf. Goodstein quotes various evangelical politicians, activists and pastors, all attesting that their omission from both events is a sign of America’s deterioration. “We’re not France,” says Richard Land of the (increasingly conservative) Southern Baptist Convention. France being, like New York, the European epicenter of secularism. “I feel like America has lost its way,” she quotes deputy mayor under Guiliani, Rudy Washington, from his recent Wall Street Journal article. “This is what’s happening to the whole country,” says Alan Wolfe of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. According to Wolfe, the nation came together on September 11, 2001, but has since moved “to complete Balkanization.”
The scene Goodstein paints of what America was before that Balkanization is misleading, though. She writes, “In a nation of unprecedented religious diversity, the United States once managed to navigate religion in public life with relatively generic acknowledgements of the sacred–a tradition often referred to as civil religion.” Well, that’s kind of like saying that religious minorities, like women and blacks, used to know their place. Civil religion was a Christian construct, a privilege of place, the free exercise of a particular brand of Christianity on our government and society. In other words, we’re not seeing a move away from civility (neither religion nor politics in the US have ever been civil) but rather the fruits of an orchestrated and long-planned rise of conservative evangelical leaders to the bland-as-Kumbaya, white, male Christian national stage. And in at a time when religious minorities are more vocally saying, “Wait, what about our religious freedoms?” (Muslims have been put in a particularly constricting box; asking for one’s rights as a Muslim risks being likened to an angry black man.) Hence all the interfaith “can’t we all just get along” efforts surrounding 9/11. Other Christian leaders are fine with the format of tomorrow’s ceremony, like Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, and the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Joseph Potasnik.
But something else is going on here, as the quotes in Goodstein’s article show. A vocal (and influential) number of conservative religious leaders read the events of 9/11 as an assault by an ungodly, heathen world (those Arabs) on their Christian Nation. The evidence, they say, is a president who doesn’t stand strong enough for America’s protection, nor Israel’s, the continuation of legal abortion, the teaching of tolerance and “multiculturalism” in public schools, and the legalization of gay marriage. (The more extreme leaders like to also point to natural disasters and “entitlement” programs.) All these things add up to the end of “real America,” a kind of shorthand term for postwar, white, middle class, straight, male-breadwinner America. A myth. But a powerful myth that most every GOP presidential candidate and one prominent news channel mourn the loss of every day. (Goodstein quotes Gretchen Carlson of “Fox & Friends” saying that “because of ‘political correctness,’ the cathedral had included ‘fringe groups’ like Buddhist nuns in the prayer service.”)
What those “excluded” from the ceremony here in the “epicenter of secularism,” New York–one can hardly imagine that they’ve ever walked through any borough on a Sunday–and the prayer service in DC don’t understand is that if you’ve come to wreck the party, the hosts aren’t so likely to let you in the door. Particularly when they’ve got a pluralistic constituency to please and peace to keep. And particularly on a day the nation’s determined to hold hands and mourn. What’s the matter with letting individuals pray the way they want to? Or not? It denies these groups a national platform from which they can (further) influence how Americans perceive the attacks on 9/11.
All too often, we hear “Christian” thrown around like it’s a one-size-fits-all garment every American is swathed in. This tick is most prevalent among so-called secular groups, often with a liberal politics we lump onto the democratic party. But as much as “Christian” is a useless descriptor that misses the immense variety of beliefs it is used to encompass (and often denigrate), so is “secular.” I wish atheist groups had delivered a petition to Bloomberg too.
(h/t Fred Myers)