Religious historian: Sept. 11 ceremony short-changed all faiths

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during the tenth anniversary ceremonies of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, September 11, 2011. Credit: Noah K. Murray/Getty Images/Getty Images News
Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during the tenth anniversary ceremonies of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, September 11, 2011. Credit: Noah K. Murray/Getty Images/Getty Images News

.- A scholar of religious history says New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did a disservice to the public by excluding prayer at the recent 9/11 commemoration – with Muslims, in particular, losing a chance to stand against terrorism.

“To me, if you have a Muslim imam there, praying about this as a terrible, evil thing that happened, and saying God is opposed to this, that is not something that would be offensive,” said Baylor University Professor Thomas Kidd.

“Much to the contrary, I think it would have been very helpful to the public perception of what Muslims are about.”

Kidd told CNA on Sept. 13 that “multi-faith” participation in the memorial would have been “good for Muslims, and good for American civil society,” as a chance to “lift up what I still believe are the mainstream Muslims who do not approve of 9/11 nor terrorism in general.”

He said those benefits would have been “worth the risk of having a few people protest” the presence of a religion that remains controversial in connection to Sept. 11.

In place of the public prayers envisioned by Kidd and others, the event marking the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks featured moments of silence and remembrances of the dead.

Kidd, whose recent book “God of Liberty” (Basic Books, $26.95) chronicles the role of religion in the American founding, said that a prayer-free 9/11 memorial would have been unimaginable to the country's Founding Fathers.

“The Founders would have taken for granted – even someone like Jefferson, Deist though he was – that you mark occasions of national importance with religion and prayer,” he observed.

In fact, Kidd noted, the letter in which Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of Church and State” was written in circumstances that shed light on the First Amendment's real meaning.

“The same weekend that he sent the 'Wall of Separation' letter, in 1802, to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut,” he recalled, “Jefferson also attended a church service in the House of Representatives' chambers, with a Baptist preacher giving the sermon.”

America's original leaders “lived in a world where public religion is as natural as can be, and they never intended the Establishment Clause” – which prevents Congress from setting up a national church – “to somehow ban public expressions of religion.”

“I think the Founders would, in fact, endorse the idea that commemorating a national tragedy would, of course, include expressions of faith.”

While rejecting secularism, Kidd sympathizes with those who worry that public displays of faith can become overly broad, diminishing the differences that separate faiths. The prayers offered at such events often stick to the common ground between religions, avoiding important differences.

But he maintains that this concession to pluralism is better than a public square completely stripped of faith.

“Should we not have a prayer service after this event, even though it has to be multi-faith? I think that's a pretty sectarian, insulated kind of view. We play our most important role in the Church, but we also have a role to play in American civil society as Christians.”

“We shouldn't forget about that, nor should we accept this rigidly secular model of American public life.”

Kidd also said that some notable believers, who are accepted even by the secular world as “saints,” could get away with discussing doctrines such as the Incarnation or the Trinity, in circumstances where the ordinary faithful might not.

“Mother Theresa did do it, at times – to some controversy. But at the same time, she could sort of do whatever she wanted!”

Ultimately, Kidd said Christians should recognize both the importance and the limits of public, non-sectarian religious ceremonies.

And these forms of religious expression, while significant in their own right, should never be considered more important than the worship that takes place within churches.

“All Christians should have a certain check within them – to realize that if New York City, or the U.S., is looking to exclude faith from the public sphere, there's a certain core of our Christian identity that this in no way touches.”

“I think it's historically inappropriate, and speaks to someone like Mayor Bloomberg having a tin ear to the role of religion in American society. But for me, as a Christian, there's a fundamental level at which this doesn't mess anything up, for me or my faith – because my faith is, at its root, a church-oriented faith rather than a nation-oriented faith. It transcends national boundaries and American history.”

“If America, as a nation, turns against that legacy, it doesn't mean I can't live as a Christian. But I think it's a bad idea, in a civil sense, for the nation to become hostile to the role of religion.” 

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