This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the attacks against our country on September 11, 2001, and New York City, Washington DC, and just about every other major metropolitan area in the US is planning to mark the anniversary with one kind of commemorative happening or another. The main event in New York, a service to be held at ground zero, has become the center of controversy revolving around the intentional exclusion by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg of any religious leaders or clergy from the service.

This controversy is occurring at the same time as a similar clamor just a few hours south of New York, in Washington DC, over the exclusion of any evangelical leaders from a service there that does include clergy from the Episcopal church as well as representatives from Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faiths. As Bobby Ross, Jr. noted at GetReligion, this issue has not received much national coverage, though, as his colleague Mollie Ziegler points out today, the New York Times, prominently featured a story about the controversy in this morning’s paper.

In addition to the Times piece, Dan Gilgoff, editor of CNN’s Belief Blog, got to the story about the New York event on Wednesday. In his piece, he notes that Jim Wallis and other religious leaders are staging a press conference near ground zero today, to discuss why they believe Mayor Bloomberg made a tremendous oversight in excluding religious leaders from the ceremony.

Gilgoff quotes Tim King, communications director for Sojourners, and, I think, King’s explanation of the situation provides an extremely insightful analysis not only of this controversy, but also of a major flaw in many people’s understanding of the relationship between religion and civic life. Here’s what he says:

Religion, and religious leaders, have caused a lot of unnecessary conflict and controversy…But avoiding religion entirely does not get to the root of the problem…The answer is better religion…

This is a point I’ve made time and again, and will undoubtedly continue to make, but I really like the way King puts it here. No reasonable religious person is going to claim that religion hasn’t caused a lot of problems both in recent history, and throughout time. That is, the so-called “New Atheists” are right in their assertion that strongly held religious beliefs often lead to conflicts and wars. But, as King notes, this does not mean the answer is to simply avoid religion. In fact, I would argue, avoiding religion, or trying to act as if it can be cut out of public life, is in large part responsible for the “unnecessary conflict and controversy” that King refers to.

It was a mistake for Bloomberg to exclude religious leaders from the commemorative event, but anyone can see what he was thinking. He was operating on outmoded assumptions that separating religion from state means ignoring the importance that religion plays in all life. It needn’t be this way.

Turning to the evangelical uproar about being excluded from the DC event, Bobby Ross, Jr. points out that an even larger swath of Christianity, Roman Catholics, have also been excluded from the event, and yet, at least as far as anyone has bothered to report, the Church has been silent on the issue. Perhaps this is because what is needed now is not infighting and clamoring for a spot, but a unified front among religious leaders. I’ll yield, once again, to Tim King, whose comments on the New York controversy, I think, can be applied to the Washington DC issue as well:

To those religious leaders who are stirring up a media controversy about this decision … you are showing exactly why Mayor Bloomberg didn’t want you there in the first place.

Exactly. Christianity is represented at the DC event. In fact, originally it was supposed to be held at the National Cathedral until a crane that was clearing debris caused by the recent earthquake fell onto the south side of the cathedral. Regardless, there will be Christians represented at the ceremony. So, relax evangelical friends; identify as Christian first and foremost, and remember that the day is about unity, after all.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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