by Krista Tippett, host
In a perfect world, or at least a perfectly informed one, most Americans would have known something about Islam as the 21st century opened. They would have been aware that over one billion of the world’s people belong to this faith that emerged from the monotheistic soil of Christianity and Judaism. They might also have known that Muslims would soon be the second largest religious group in the U.S., after Christians. And that statistic might have come alive in American imaginations in the form of the doctors and teachers, parents and citizens it represents.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. September 11, 2001, was many Americans’ catastrophic introduction to Islam. Certainly, up to then, there were Islamic images that populated the American sense of the world out there — threatening images, many of them, associated with bombed embassies or the first failed World Trade Center attack. Islamic terrorists were default suspects, too, we recall, in the immediate hours after the Oklahoma City bombing.
But September 11 was the day, as someone said, when the Middle East came to America. That Tuesday we woke up as post-Cold War people — citizens of the prosperous remaining superpower. By Wednesday we had become post-9/11 people, with newly fearful eyes on the world. And our new enemies declared themselves agents of Islam.
I was in Washington, DC, on that day seeking funding for the wild idea of a weekly public radio program on religion. I had been piloting programs for about a year, getting an enthusiastic response from listeners and a tepid one from programmers. Talk of religion, many argued, was necessarily proselytizing and divisive. Moreover, faith wasn’t an appropriate focus for a weekly hour of public radio — not a reasonable, weighty subject for public life like politics or economics or the arts — best left as a private matter.Comments
by Amy Gottlieb, guest contributor
Every day is the anniversary of something. The date on the calendar ripples with other dates, other stories.
It’s now a month since the tenth anniversary of 9/11, when, two days earlier, a dozen of us marched into Manhattan’s Bryant Park wearing somber black vintage clothing, clutching manual typewriter boxes in our hands. Our up-dos and pearls lent us an air of Old New York secretarial efficiency. We were not to appear casual or chatty; we would not be using our cell phones.
When we first took our seats on the plaza, tourists snapped photos as if we were museum specimens. Gradually the first hesitant talkers sat down across from us, then a few more, until the hours passed quickly in an exchange of words and a clattering of keys.
The model for Sheryl Oring’s Collective Memory project was simple: a row of typists, dressed in early 60’s vintage, on the plaza of Bryant Park would take dictation from anyone who wanted to respond to the prompt, “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?” The responses would be collated and become part of a traveling exhibit. I volunteered to help Sheryl because I am a writer and always dreamed of being a village scribe. Set me up with a carton for a desk and a duffel for a stool; sit across from me and tell me your story so I can write it down for you, clean up your grammar, make sure your words meet their intended destination. This scribal role is not so different from the best moments of writing fiction or poetry; the surprise of inspiration and the work of crafting precise transmission are here, albeit in a diluted form. But what I did not expect was how privileged I felt being the recipient of a stranger’s words. Sit down and open your heart because I am here. My ancient and efficient Underwood will write it all down for you. The illusion of the past will carry your words into the future. What were you doing that day?
We were to receive every narrative with interest; we would be occasionally moved and often not. Some told stories of where they were when the planes hit. Many narrated pithy sentences, as if there was a moral to be found:
Live in the moment.
Do not hate.
Care for one another.
One woman said, “I am a New Yorker and we did not intend for this to cause a war, we did not want a war.” A young woman blatantly told me how the event seemed unreal to her all these years, like a movie, and, now that she is older, she is beginning to consider the import of what really happened. One woman narrated her words for the typewritten record and then told me the real story of how volunteering at Nino’s Restaurant down at Ground Zero in the weeks and months after 9/11 changed the course of her life. Another spoke of how the falling grey ash that day made all the survivors appear the same; all differences were blotted out. Some responses were defiant and political. Many speakers paused between sentences, considering the flow of their words.
Most willingly gave their names, first and last. There was a quiet satisfaction in being heard, in one’s words being recorded on these ancient keyboards.
Thank you for doing this.
Thank you for stopping by.
The act of inviting the telling was beautiful to me, and as fitting a memorial as anything could be.
After two hours I returned to the Bryant Park offices, combed out my up-do and exchanged my somber black dress for jeans. My co-typist slipped on a motorcycle helmet. We found our cell phones, checked email, rode the elevator down to the street, and descended further down into subways.
Sitting on the 1 train, I was once again an ordinary passenger, but what I most wanted to do was turn to the person next to me and ask her to tell me what she was thinking. Not because it was the anniversary of 9/11 but because the words of a stranger speaking through the cracks of her heart felt necessary, and remains necessary every day. I have a typewriter. Tell me a story:
Where were you when something big happened and what are you thinking about now?
Amy Gottlieb is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in the Forward, Lilith, Puerto del Sol, Zeek, and other publications and anthologies. She is the 2010-2011 Poetry Fellow and Resident at the Bronx Council on the Arts and is finishing a novel.
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Lead photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.
by Rick Elgendy, special contributor
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.
Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.
The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.
Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”
With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.
Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.
But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.
In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.
Rick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.