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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0 Responses to Against the Exclusion of Religion from 9/11 Memorial Services

  1. […] friend Jonathan Fitzgerald over at Patrol alerted me to Mayor Bloomberg’s exclusion of all clergy (Christian, Muslim, or […]

  2. This is disgusting. Since the 9/11 attacks were caused by a religious group, it’s unfair to exclude religious leaders from responding with a different way, with calls for compassion and repentance and forgiveness. It’s like convicting someone without allowing them to offer a defense.

    We hear about everything religion has done wrong in the world. But we don’t hear about the good that religious groups do. Name any recent disaster, from Katrina to the Haiti EQ. Guess who’s STILL on the scene, cleaning up? CHURCH GROUPS.

  3. crowepps says:

    I’ve been following this story and am appalled by the slant of the reporting.

    Contrary to the headline here “religion” has not been excluded. Every one of the family members present brings their religion with them and represents their faith personally. “Prayer” has not been excluded either. There are six solemn moments of silence during which prayer and reflection are encouraged. God will surely be present, and will hear those prayers “in secret”.

    Mayor Bloomberg did not make the decision. This is a continuation of the tradition established by the families 9 years ago when Rudy was still mayor, they have done it this way every year since without anyone noticing, and in my opinion the families have an absolute right to continue doing this exactly as they wish.

    Clergy haven’t been excluded as a class. The families include members of the clergy, including priests, rabbis and pastors, who participate by reading names and silently praying. Even if clergy WERE excluded, that doesn’t mean ‘Christians won’t be represented’, because there are plenty of Christians among the mourners. Religion is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the clergy, absent without their paid presence.

    It is true that prominent religious leaders have not been invited to take center stage. The families did not want to do so. The Mayor, representing government, is supposed to guard and guarantee the mourners’ religious freedom; government’s role is NEVER to pressure people to include clergy they don’t want saying spoken prayers they don’t want to hear.

    This ceremony is the occasion on which these families are going to dedicate their missing loved ones graves. For some of them, this will be the ONLY grave, because their loved ones body was never recovered. They do not owe anyone one second of time at the podium where they traditionally read the names of their dead. There were many and it takes a long time.

    Better religion sounds like a wonderful idea to me. How about starting on that course by respecting the ability of the faithful to be religious without a paid supervisor standing over them making sure they do it correctly?

  4. Jeff says:

    Totally agree with the above comment. God can be fully present without a clergyman to talk for him in flowery language.

  5. crowepps says:

    Watched the memorial service when I got up this morning. No clergy. Lots of religion. Superb subtle guidance of the steps by uniformed NYPD and NYFD personnel. Particularly moved by President Obama reading my favorite Psalm, which was read at my Grandfather’s funeral as well.

    I thought the entire dedication of the memorial was wonderful and a good example of how Americans can simultaneously express their unity and respect their differences.

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