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What 9/11 Did to Religion

What 9/11 Did to Religion

By now, you may be numb to the plethora of 9/11 reflections surrounding its tenth anniversary.

One stood out to me. CNN’s John Blake reached out to religious leaders and scholars to pose a simple question:  How did 9/11 change America’s attitude toward religion?

According to those he asked, 9/11 changed America’s attitude toward religion in the following four ways:

1. A chosen nation becomes a humbled one. The random, arbitrary nature of what happened on that day altered the American sense of invulnerability. Our sense of being the “chosen” people has changed. We are now simply one nation among other nations. As Matthew Schmalz, a religion professor at Holy Cross University, offered: “We had this sense of specialness and invulnerability that 9/11 shattered.”

2. The re-emergence of “Christo-Americanism.” Many believe an increase in religious prejudice, most notably against Islam, has occurred since 9/11. This has fueled the rise of what some have called a “Christo-Americanism” -- a distorted form of Christianity that blends nationalism, conservative paranoia and Christian rhetoric. “A segment of the religious community in the United States has been at the forefront of an anti-Islamic crusade,” says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at Wooster College in Ohio, “that has helped to generate a climate of hatred and distrust toward all Muslims.”

3. Interfaith becomes cool. Before 9/11 interfaith efforts were dismissed as feel-good affairs that rarely got the media’s attention. Now, being an interfaith leader is hip. “A generation of students is saying that they want to be interfaith leaders,” says Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 2002, “just like previous generations said they wanted to be human rights activists or environmentalists.”

4. Atheists come of the closet. After 9/11, atheists got loud. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens -- all authored bestselling books proclaiming the world would be better off without belief in God. According to Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor with Tufts University, “Criticism of all religion, not just fanatical cults, was no longer taboo after 9/11.” 

I don’t disagree with these four observations; whether they are tied to 9/11 or not is another matter. 

Yes, we are a more humble nation, but that may flow more from a weakened economy and mixed military results in our two current wars.

Yes, there is a strain of “Christo-Americanism,” though I sense that it is often inflated by a media eager to highlight anything “fringe” about the “right.” Further, we seem to be in a climate where anyone who denounces radical Islam -- or even theologically challenges mainstream Islamic faith as a Christian -- is erroneously placed in this category.

Yes, it is cool to be interfaith, though I suspect this is little more than the mainstreaming of religious pluralism that has been in process for decades. These days, it seems to be the only acceptable way to be religious.

And yes, who could deny that famed atheists have come out of the closet to write books. 

All three of them.

But are these four attitudes really a reflection of the biggest impact 9/11 had on America's religious dynamic?

I don’t think so. As mentioned, I’m not even sure they are directly tied to 9/11 at all.

But I would argue for four other results:

1. There is a clash of civilizations. Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington presciently saw the conflict between Islam and the West looming on the horizon, and called it the “clash of civilizations.” Released before 9/11, his book came out with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which received most of the press (featuring the idea that all of history, as we defined history, had essentially ended with the fall of communism). Huntington’s thesis was equally provocative, but more widely dismissed -- namely that there were three great civilizations (Western, Asian, Islamic), that there would be great conflict between the West and Islam, and that Islam’s militarism would force itself upon the world. Huntington was right. 9/11 didn’t just force the reality of this upon our thinking, in many ways, it seemed to unleash it around the world.

2. Everyone now has to wrestle with the problem of evil. What took place on 9/11 was evil. Forget Menninger’s wonderment of “whatever happened to sin;” we now have no doubt that it is alive and well. But what do we make of it? Is it something we are, something we do, something that “is”? It used to be that skeptics would ask Christians how a loving God could allow so much evil and suffering; we now must ask that of every worldview, philosophy and religion.

3. Christianity has been largely dismissed from acceptable public discourse. It seems counter-intuitive, but after the prayers and packed churches the weekend following 9/11, not to mention Billy Graham’s touching words in the National Cathedral, we seemed to decide that it was best to leave religion off of the agenda. And specifically, Christianity. Now, 10 years later, when the 9/11 Memorial will be dedicated, the last report is that no formal prayers will be offered and no clergy have even been invited. There will be an interfaith prayer vigil at the National Cathedral featuring the Dean of the Cathedral (supposedly representing the Christian faith), but actual invited guests do not include a representative of Christianity at all, much less evangelical faith. On slate are a rabbi, a Buddhist nun, an incarnate lama, a Hindu priest, the president of the Islamic Society of North America and a Muslim musician. But this is symptomatic of a wider dismissal; consider the presidential race heating up for 2012. The one great vice of a candidate seems to be having a Christian worldview that matters to their thinking, while the one great virtue is an innocuous faith. We ran to Jesus after 9/11, but seem to have decided that the best way to deal with the new world is to bend over backwards to accept moderate forms of Islam, while distancing ourselves from any form of Christianity.

4. There is a new longing for what will offer hope. Barack Obama rode into office on a tidal wave of hope -- yes, audacious hope. And whether we voted for him or not, we were ready for it. Regardless of your political moorings, he hasn’t delivered -- at least as yet -- but his election revealed our deepest longing. We want hope, the kind that promises substantive change. 

After 9/11 came a war in Iraq, and then a war in Afghanistan. Then came the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. What started with the dot-com bubble and Enron ended with the mortgage and stock market crisis. Throw in Abu Ghraib, Virginia Tech and Fort Hood, and it’s no wonder that the editors of Time magazine have called it “The Decade from Hell.”

Little wonder that according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a staggering 73 percent of all Americans believe we, as a nation, are on the wrong track. We know as never before that it’s a sick, screwed-up, sin-stained, broken world. We want it fixed.

This has left us more spiritually open than ever before, yet often indiscriminate. Whoever offers the best hope “package” will win hearts and minds. 

So there are the four ways I believe 9/11 changed the religious state of things. 

One last thought: 10 years ago a lot of churches blew their chance at speaking to the real issues of the moment when people flooded churches around the nation to hear a word from God.

That’s why the millions who flooded in flooded right back out.

This time, let’s have something substantive to say. We’ve had 10 years to think it through. 

James Emery White


“Four ways 9/11 changed America’s attitude toward religion,” John Blake, CNN, September 3, 2011. Read online.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.

“Voter Discontent Deepens Ahead of Obama Jobs Plan,” by Jonathan Weisman, The Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2011. Read online.

Editor’s Note

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