Without Benefit of Clergy
Samuel Dunbar Livingston
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned New York City’s 10th anniversary
commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, his decision not to make a place for
clergy in the official ceremony triggered howls of outrage from several
kinds of conservatives.
“It is time that Mayor Bloomberg hears from all of us that this deliberate
insult to the faith of Americans, and indeed to God himself is inexcusable,”
an American Family Association newsletter thundered on August 30, after the
Bloomberg, who had developed his own clergy-free method of honoring the
victims of 9/11 in the course of many previous anniversary observances in
New York, wasn’t inclined to ask forgiveness. He justified his position as
a practical solution to potential conflicts over selecting which of a
multitude of religious leaders might be chosen to officiate at a public
“There’s an awful lot of people that would like to participate, but you just
can’t do that once you open it up,” Bloomberg said during his weekly radio
show on July 29. “So the argument here is, it’s elected officials and those
who were there at the time and had some influence.”
Since Bloomberg took over as mayor of New York from Rudy Giuliani on January
1, 2002, clergy have never been an official part of the 9/11 memorial
service at Ground Zero. Instead, the service has always focused on moments
of silence at the times when each tower fell and on the reading of the
Despite the long precedent for clergy-free commemorations, Bloomberg’s
choice triggered significant backlash on the 10th anniversary, when the
entire nation was paying attention. Political figures, interest groups, and
religious leaders weighed in from all over the country but intriguingly, few
complaints were heard in New York itself.
The contrast points to significant regional differences over what and how
Americans want to remember the 9/11 attacks. “Ten years [after 9/11], any
consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public
ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart,” Laurie
Goodstein wrote in the New York Times September 8.
For conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, the omission of
clergy seemed outrageous. “I’m stunned,” wrote Tim Wildmon, President of the
American Family Association in a September 2 Huffington Post article.
“This event affected the whole psyche and soul of the country, and you are
going to have no prayer? What’s a memorial service if you are going to leave
God out completely? It seems kind of hollow.”
But for long-term supporters of church-state separation, Bloomberg’s move
seemed perfectly appropriate. “While a non-sectarian prayer delivered at the
event would surely be constitutionally acceptable and appropriate for the
event, it is by no means required,” Don Byrd of the Baptist Joint Committee
for Religious Liberty responded in his blog September 6.
The Bloomberg administration held firm and emphasized the inclusion of
humanist and spiritual values in the ceremony. “The ceremony was designed in
coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are
spiritual, historical and personal in nature,” said Bloomberg spokeswoman
Evelyn on August 25, repeating the administration’s mantra.
Many New Yorkers liked Bloomberg’s approach. “I don’t think we have to be
‘denominational’ to achieve spiritual meaning. Consider for instance that
the new buildings and memorials at Ground Zero are constructed to allow a
wedge of sunlight every September 11th to shine at 8:46 AM on the footprint
of the destroyed North Tower,” said religion scholar Anthony Stevens-Arroyo,
a prominent New York Catholic, in a contribution to the Washington Post’s
On Faith blog on September 7.
“9/11 was not a religious event,” Stevens-Arroyo, who teaches at Brooklyn
College, claimed. “The bombers of the WTC in NY and intended attacks on
other symbols of US power pursued terrorist aims, not religious ones.
Similarly, public commemorations for this attack are not so much moments to
worship God, as they are invitations to reflect on human morality and
humanity’s capacity for transcendent meaning. It is simply not true that
only the clergy can express this transcendent meaning and give it a
Bloomberg’s desire to steer clear of the profusion of religious options in
21st-century America wasn’t widely shared—even in New York—in 2001, in the
immediate wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In
both New York and Washington, extensive ecumenical panels of clergy were
marshaled to lead the mourning, standing beside elected officials, and each
occupying the spotlight briefly.
Just three days after the attacks, President George W. Bush took to the
pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, an Episcopal Church, to
address the nation as a choir sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic (“Glory,
glory Hallelujah…”) in the background.
Billy Graham gave the sermon and other parts of the service were performed
by a lineup of other Abrahamic clergy: the Cardinal Archbishop of
Washington, Theodore McCarrick; Houston megachurch pastor Kirbylon Caldwell;
Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, rabbi emeritus of Washington Hebrew Congregation;
and Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, Imam, Islamic Society of North America.
Under Mayor Giuliani, New York’s five-hour “Prayer for America” at Yankee
Stadium two weeks after the attack was no less religious. It included a
rainbow of many faiths—Roman Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Jews,
Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs—along with elected officials and celebrities like
Oprah Winfrey. There were two invocations, scripture readings, two
benedictions, the blowing of the shofar, and numerous prayers from
Given the positive reaction to clerical inclusion at these two events, why
is it that Mayor Bloomberg believed that he should not bring clergy from
different religions together in one place or even to make any mention of
religion to remember our country’s most devastating single loss since Pearl
Harbor? What happened to the widespread religious fervor embraced by our
nation’s leaders in the face of a great threat?
“9/11 was this moment that we came together, and it lasted about
three-and-a-half minutes,” wrote Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center
for Religion in Public Life at Boston College, in the New York Times
on September 8. “The country went from a brief moment of something like
unity, to complete Balkanization, and now we’re seeing it in religion and in
politics, like in everything else.”
America’s loosely defined but omnipresent “civil religion,” at which a
vaguely defined deity is often called down to bless America, can’t “work if
everyone is going to be litigious, if everyone is going to be more concerned
about their own special interests, their own rights,” Wolfe continued.
In New York, top religious leaders such as Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan
and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of
Rabbis, entered the fray to say that they weren’t offended by Bloomberg’s
With controversy surging nationally around Bloomberg’s anti-clericalism, the
big issue locally was an attempt by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to
muscle Bloomberg into including various past and present New Jersey public
officials in the Ground Zero service.
“If we allow New York to make every one of these decisions with just New
York, no one from New Jersey would be there. That’s my job. I’m standing up
for the people of my state,” said Christie to the New York Post on
While the Post published a perfunctory editorial lamenting the
exclusion of clergy from the service, like the Daily News it focused
on this local rivalry rather than Bloomberg’s “secularist” move.
Two things emerged clearly from the local coverage. First: Very few public
figures in the region have much appetite for a tangle with Michael
Bloomberg. Second: A man very much of his time and place, Hizzoner reflects
the powerful norms of religion in public life that were asserted in the
middle of the twentieth century in places like New York.
Identified as a Reform Jew, Bloomberg is consistently low-key about his own
religiosity. And he has repeatedly and forcefully articulated a vigorous
sense of the importance of keeping government and religion well separated,
most recently in backing the New York Housing Authority’s recent decision
that a court decision obliged it to ban religious services in the community
rooms of its project.
Bloomberg laid out his views most clearly in a talk delivered on August 3,
2010, amidst another celebrated church-state controversy, the construction
of the proposed “Ground Zero mosque.” Surrounded by a galaxy of clergy of
different faiths standing on Governor’s Island with the Statue of Liberty in
the background, he delivered a passionate defense of the rights of religious
groups to pursue their faiths without government interference and insisted
that government and religion should not mix.
“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never
choose between religions or favor one over another,” Bloomberg said, in a
Daily News story reported by Adam Lisberg. “The World Trade Center site
will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would
be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and
Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.”
For Bloomberg, religion is important, but always private, a domain of
individual and group choice.
But many others, especially non-New Yorkers, disagreed vociferously when it
came to commemorating 9/11. They insisted that religion plays a key role in
American national identity, whether or not politicians recognize it.
“We’re not France, Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and
we’re not,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty
Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in the New York Times
on September 8. A few days earlier, Land had dismissed Bloomberg’s scruples
as “the mindless secularist prejudice of the political establishment on our
nation’s Eastern Seaboard,” in an interview published on his own
On the religious right, many denounced Bloomberg’s stand as a classic
liberal move to overcompensate for sensitive individuals. The Southern
Baptist Convention, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and
the Family Research Council, the American Family Association all issued
“action alerts” to their members warning them of Bloomberg’s attempt to
uproot religion from national mourning. They cited the critical role
religious groups played in the immediate recovery after 9/11 as grounds for
the legitimate role religious groups should play now on anniversaries of the
Naturally, the religious conservatives attracted criticism in return. “No
sane American would think to turn such an event into a new front in the
nation’s ongoing culture wars, but with the cooperation of news media
organizations who are as fearful of offending them as the politicians who
court their favor, conservative Christians did just that,” Jacques
Berlinerblau, director the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown
University, wrote in a September 12 column in the University of Southern
It is true that the mayor of liberal New York City may be very inclined to
take steps to ensure no one group feels excluded and discriminated against.
Bloomberg chose “none” over “all” rather than cater to many faiths and risk
It is important to note that New York did not “own” the 9/11 remembrance in
2011. Other major cities in America devised their own very different ways of
remembering the tragedy, many of which included elaborate and inclusive
rosters of religious leaders.
Washington’s National Cathedral held religious-themed observances led by the
Episcopal Bishop of Washington, a Buddhist nun, an incarnate lama, a Hindu
priest, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, and a Muslim
Similarly, the City of Boston—one of the airliners that struck the World
Trade Center was hijacked from Boston—sponsored a memorial event that
included a common prayer led by 17 religious leaders. “We understand the
meaning of this society, that this is a pluralistic society and that this is
a way to bring harmony to society, to work with one another,” Imam Talal Eid,
executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, told the Boston
Globe on September 11.
“Boston is a different scale and ego,” said David Hastings, president of the
Massachusetts 9/11 Commission, when asked why Boston took a completely
opposite approach to the memorial than New York City.
The personal beliefs of current political decision makers seem to affect the
outcome. “The microphone will not melt if you say a prayer,” former Mayor
Giuliani, snarked as he weighed in on his successor’s clergy ban at the
National Press Club in Washington on September 7.
Interestingly, at the New York commemoration itself, President Obama stepped
in to play a high priestly role. He proclaimed that weekend, Friday the 9th
through Sunday the 11th, to be National Days of Prayer and Remembrance. When
he took the podium he read Psalm 46:1-10, which begins “God is our refuge
and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
So if Mayor Bloomberg designed the memorial along secularist lines, the
President was aware that not all of America saw it that way. By uttering
carefully shaded religious language, Obama inserted religion at the
memorial, despite Bloomberg’s no-clergy policy.
What is to be made of this controversy? Is it a political, social, or
religious phenomenon? If nothing else, the passionate reactions show that
Americans are not neutral, but that they hold strong and differing opinions.
Even though the coverage has dissipated, at least until next September, the
function of religion in our national identity remains a source of constant
“I’m sure Europeans and Australians think Americans are crazy when it comes
to religion, and they are,” Father Kevin Madigan of St. Peter’s Church in
New York told a reporter from Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia.
“If Bloomberg were to invite one priest, he’d have to invite ten to reflect
various Christian denominations that flourish in the U.S,” Paul Toohey of
the Telegraph reported on September 10. “And that would mean he’d
also have to invite a rabbi or two. For balance, he’d then have to invite a
few imams. And there was no way in hell that was ever going to happen.”
“It seemed easier just to get God out of the picture altogether,” Toohey
wrote. “But this is America. God is never out of the picture.”
Americans may get a little bit crazy when it comes to religion and interpret
attempts to keep religion out of public life as offensive. Even decisions
framed purposely to avoid controversy are often seen as an offense against
freedom, or even a betrayal of the country’s traditions, or as one political
party stabbing another party’s values in the back.
Open expression of religious belief by government officials, religious
conservatives often insist, has a positive, productive function, especially
in times of national crisis.
“When America and the allies invaded Europe on D-Day in 1944, President
Roosevelt led the nation in prayer on a national radio broadcast for 10
minutes asking for blessing for our troops. So this is not a partisan issue,
and it’s not just a current fad,” said Ken Klukowski, director of the Center
for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, to CBN news September
And yet as stories like this one remind us, religion has just as much
potential to divide Americans. And, on specific questions, whether religion
unites or divides is still often a matter of perceptions rooted in important
local realities. What seems obvious in New York, seems outrageous in
Nashville. And vice versa.
There’s little evidence to suggest that this will change soon.