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.