Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Islam is Everywhere

Pacifism on the Record

When Our Allies Persecute

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


Religion After 9-11:
Good for What Ails Us
by Andrew Walsh

After September 11 the American people—with their leaders and their journalists leading the charge—embraced a much higher level of religious practice.

Thousands of prayer services and memorials took place and for a week or more many religious institutions sponsored daily prayer services. The Gallup Organization reported that on the weekend following the attacks the percentage of Americans who reported that they had attended worship jumped by six percent.

Looking for moments of comparable response, some religious leaders suggested the weekend after John Kennedy’s assassination, others the mourning following Franklin Roosevelt’s death, still others the shock that followed Pearl Harbor. But whatever its similarity to earlier times, the religious mobilization of September 11 highlighted the increased diversity of American religious life and the remarkable degree to which the American media now treat religion as a source of essential solidarity in times of crisis.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks there was a surge in news coverage portraying religion as a pivotal communal activity and resource.

The overwhelming majority of American cities and towns were not directly affected by the attacks on September 11. Perhaps as a result, many newspapers made the local "religious responses" their main local reaction story. Headlines like "Thousands Gather to Listen and Pray," "Churches Flock to Aid Community," and "Church Services Restore Hope for Many" were commonplace.

Typical of the local reaction stories was Peter Savodnik’s piece in the Charlottesville, Virginia Daily Progress September 12. "The parishioners trickling into Crozet’s Tabor Presbyterian Church on Tuesday evening were seeking more than spiritual sustenance and personal salvation. They were looking for a little solidarity—something larger than themselves, something good and hopeful and secure in the wake of the morning’s devastating, mind-numbing attacks."

As Savodnik suggested, the American people did not surge into houses of worship on Tuesday evening and remain there for days. Participation built slowly, with very large gatherings taking place only over the weekend. Many of the first and second day stories described crowds at worship that were actually quite small. "The midday Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception typically draws about 25 of the faithful," Kevin Riordan reported in the September 12 edition of the Camden, New Jersey Courier-Post. "But three times that number were in the pews Tuesday."

That small element of spin—stressing the proportion of worshipers and not the actual number—was repeated all over the nation. There was, in fact, a prescriptive element in much of the early coverage, with journalists, clergy, and government officials suggesting in print and over the air that participating in public religious observances was the best way to respond to the crisis. Sometimes it came in as straightforward a pitch as the headline on Emma Jackson’s September 13 story in the Ann Arbor News: "Grief, Anger, Prayers Welcomed."

The same day, the News also carried a piece describing a meeting at city hall of some 50 secular and religious leaders, including representatives of the Muslim Community Association, Zen Buddhist Temple, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, Ann Arbor Friends (Quakers), and Temple Beth Emeth. "You are the moral center of our community," said Ann Arbor Police Chief Daniel Oates. "That’s why you’re here today."

As in Ann Arbor, this particular mobilization was marked by an emphasis on both the variety of the nation’s religions and the unanimity of their reaction to the slaughter. The Austin American-Statesmen registered this in its brief coverage of a prayer service at the Texas Capitol on the afternoon of September 11. "In a show of America’s spiritual strength in the face of tragedy, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Unitarians, and Hindus stood together in prayer on the state Capitol steps today."

In fact, in the course of the crisis American religious diversity received a new, and perhaps decisive, level of recognition. The cast of religious leaders summoned to the White House and to lead the memorial services organized and sanctioned by the government at the National Cathedral and at Yankee Stadium offered up a showcase of world religions. Henceforth, when religion is presented to the American public, the picture will include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs as well as Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

While the actual proportion of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs in the population is still quite small, the important thing is that the "ecumenical" face of religion in America has now shifted to reflect an "interfaith" reality.

There’s more to this than the simple act of greater inclusion. It also means that in the future religious groups will pull fewer punches in their public religious discourse. The old rules, shaped during the decades of the 20th century when "interfaith" was limited to Christians and Jews, permitted generalized invocation of the deity at public events but discouraged things like prayer to and in the name of Jesus. That was particularist bad manners. But now, that’s the old paradigm.

The new approach was on display at the National Service of Prayer and Remembrance held on September 14 at the National Cathedral in Washington. Shaped by the Episcopal clergy and the White House staff, the service demonstrated that in the interfaith setting, the only thing required is comity—no direct criticism of other groups. Otherwise all can do their own thing with their own little slice of an event.

So, when the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Methodist pastor from Houston and a close friend of President Bush, offered a prayer for the nation’s leadership, he closed it by saying—live on ABC News and other broadcast outlets—"Respecting persons of all faiths and traditions, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen."

Muzammil H. Siddiqi, imam of a large Islamic center in Southern California and president of the Islamic Society of North America, held the designated Muslim slot. So he quoted the Koran and prayed in Arabic. When Rabbi Joshua Haberman followed Siddiqi, he began his invocation with a reference to the Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Scripture.

But the group truly unfettered by the interfaith reality was American Protestantism. The frame of the service was a generic Protestant one, including scripture readings drawn exclusively from the New Testament, a performance of the "Lord’s Prayer" and hymns like "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past," "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," and "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" mixed in with civil religious anthems like "America the Beautiful," "God Bless America," and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The Episcopal clergy presiding at the National Cathedral showed some inclination toward the old "ecumenical speak," but the new specificity kept erupting. The Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of the cathedral, for example, invoked the "God of Abraham, Mohammed, and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"—an inclusive, unwieldy, and theologically unstable construct that still ends up stressing the priority of Christianity.

If Protestantism prevailed in Washington, it was Roman Catholicism that focused the religious response to the attacks in New York. Partly this reflected the reality of Catholic dominance in the region, partly the more particular realities of the city’s fire and police departments, and partly the depth and ready applicability of popular Catholicism.

Not that the coverage ignored other religious elements. Many stories tracked Jewish responses—for example, the work of teams of volunteers who after two months were still working around the clock to ensure that Jewish burial customs are observed. The diversity theme received full play as well, with many stories noting that the police and fire departments have Christian, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains. Clergy of many groups and faiths have been portrayed as effective and willing counselors.

Nevertheless, the deep-rooted Catholicism of so many New Yorkers shaped the most pervasive patterns of ritual and response. Workers at Ground Zero treated the site as a holy place in a specifically Catholic way, asking priests to bless the area and erecting crosses made from steel girders. The spontaneous and deeply moving shrines that developed in memory of the dead and missing outside New York’s hospitals and fire stations were also derived from Catholic piety.

The city’s earliest, most frequent, and most powerful ritual expressions were almost all shaped by Catholic norms. A dispatch broadcast on National Public Radio on September 17 captured this sense of Catholic particularity, and yet also the sense that Catholic rituals and Catholic faith did work for other New Yorkers.

Reporter Andy Bowers described a mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the evening of September 11 "for the victims of the attacks and those trying to rescue them." The church, which he described as a "special place in New York," was crowded with people holding photographs of loved ones whom they feared were lost. Among those interviewed was Greg Packer, who said he came to the mass to pay his respects and to pray for everybody. Packer, holding a photograph of a friend’s wife, told Bowers that he was Jewish, but wanted to participate in the mass because "St. Patrick’s is open to all faiths."

Most powerful of all was the crystallization of an intense and now global devotion to Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest and fire chaplain who died at Ground Zero. There have been literally hundreds of stories about Judge, his funeral, and his ministry. In November, a delegation of New York firefighters carried Judge’s fire helmet, like the bones of a martyr, to Rome and turned it over to the Pope.

Part of this outpouring had to do with reactions to Judge’s life as a priest—one of intense involvement with firefighters and their families—and to the courage that brought him to the World Trade Center in the first wave of response. Firefighters entering Tower One stopped to ask for his blessing before they began climbing the staircases of the Twin Towers. After only a few minutes at the site, Judge knelt to give the last rites to a firefighter mortally injured by a falling body. Judge took off his helmet to pray, and received a fatal head injury from falling debris.

A photograph of rescue workers reverently carrying his body away from the site appeared the next day in newspapers around the world. (It occupied two pages of U.S. News & World Report’s coverage of the catastrophe.) There was worldwide coverage of his funeral mass, which was celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan and attended by hundreds of firefighters, some of whom came directly from rescue work to the church.

But that was only the beginning. In a story broadcast on September 20, Noah Adams of National Public Radio captured the extraordinary emotion and spontaneous devotion that had sprung up around Judge. Adams broadcast a long conversation with Vina Drennan, the widow of a New York firefighter who met Judge when he ministered to her after her husband was killed in the line of duty in 1994.

"His prayers were like a hotline to God," Drennen said. "When he prayed, it was the most blessed thing. In the midst of despair and fear and sorrow and great, great grief, you felt like he was a presence that would get you through things." She then described the extraordinary impact of Judge’s death in a department struggling to cope with the simultaneous death of more than 300 of its members.

"The firefighters, when they realized he had perished, they carried him up to St. Peter’s Church and they laid out his body on the altar, and they put his rosaries in his hand, and they pinned his Fire Department badge, and they prayed over him. Later that night, they wouldn’t let his body go to the morgue. They brought him to their firehouse, and they laid him in the back room. And all the friars came from across the street at St. Francis Assisi came, lit candles and said a vigil. He was beloved by every firefighter in this city, and the Fire Department will grieve him many, many years."

As these stories spread around town, the profiles of Judge multiplied. The eulogy at his funeral was widely quoted in newspapers and broadcasts all over the world. The emotional tone of the funeral coverage was almost ecstatic, especially in New York newspapers: "Fire Chaplain Laid to Rest, Bravest Mourn Their Beloved Shepherd," read the headline in the Daily News. "He Gave His Life to the City" responded the headline in Newsday. The Los Angeles Times reported that Judge was already well known for his compassionate pastoral care for the families of the victims of the TWA Flight 800 crash in 1996.

The news value attached to Judge was so great that the Manchester Union-Leader produced a substantial "hometown" feature story on September 21 about the New Hampshire-born friar who preached at Judge’s funeral mass. "Ashland Native Gave Homily" the headline read.

Judge died fulfilling the ideal of a Catholic priest at the highest conceivable level. "Father Mike" was kind, funny, smart, loyal, spiritual, a friend to the friendless, "a man who never turned his back on anyone in need," the epitome of a Franciscan walking the streets of New York today. Almost everything about him—down to the fact that he slept on a sofa bed in the small friary room where he lived—was newsworthy.

Except the fact that Judge was a relatively high profile gay man.

Of several hundred stories on Judge collected from electronic databases, only two from the mainstream press broached the topic of his sexuality at all. The Village Voice reported September 19, "[T]o friends, he was known as a gay man who appreciated the Gay USA show and celebrated the city’s ‘gorgeous men’ by saying ‘Isn’t God wonderful?’ When his close friend, gay activist Brendan Fay, started a St. Patrick’s Parade in Queens last year that included gay groups, Judge helped him to fund it and showed up in his brown friar’s robes to put the church on the side of the oppressed, even as Catholic officialdom was urging a boycott. He frequently donated clothes to the Out of the Closet Thrift Shop for gay and AIDS causes on East 81st St. He was a long-time member of Dignity, the gay Catholic group." Judge reportedly also preferred to attend gay Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

For those in the know, there was an indirect flash of acknowledgement in the final lines of Dennis Duggan’s Newsday column on September 13. "Father Judge was a good man and the friendless in this town will miss him. One of those is Brendan Fay, who heads the Lavender and Green Alliance. ‘We are dedicating our St. Patrick’s Day in Astoria next March to him.’"

Meanwhile the gay press and the Internet discussion groups boiled with discussion and resentment. On October 22, the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association complained that because "some news organizations have selectively chosen to obscure or ignore the sexual orientation of some of those who lost their lives" they had deprived Americans of a chance to learn about and honor gay heroes. "Although Father Judge was openly gay and often worked in the gay community, this fact went unreported in many stories generated by the mainstream press."

What’s odd is that mainstream journalists did identify another gay hero/victim of September 11 in an uncomplicated manner. Mark Bingham of San Francisco was among the group of passengers who apparently resisted the highjackers on United Airlines Flight 93, which then crashed in a Pennsylvania field instead of into a building in Washington. Press coverage matter-of-factly described him as both a hero and a homosexual.

So what gives? Neutral and positive discussion of homosexual identity has become a journalistic commonplace in contemporary America. And anyone regularly reading religion coverage encounters a lot of stories in which gays and homosexuality are matters of interest and concern.

Journalists seized on Judge for many reasons: because his death was among the first to be publicized, because of the photos taken of firefighters recovering his body, because so few bodies had been recovered from Ground Zero, because of the noble manner of his death, because of the deep reaction of firefighters and police, because of the flood of testimony from friends who wished to honor him.

Mychal Judge gained most of his fame after his death. So most journalists didn’t begin by knowing that they had a fallen, heroic, gay priest on their hands. But Dennis Duggan of Newsday clearly knew, and neither he nor his editors were comfortable with publishing more than hints. And anyone covering Judge’s funeral heard reporters from gay publications peppering Cardinal Egan with questions about the church’s refusal to address Judge’s sexuality publicly.

Something about the conjunction of religion, disaster, and heroism apparently persuaded journalists—en mass, at dozens of publications and broadcast news outlets ranging from the ultra-conservative National Catholic Register to the Irish Times of Dublin to the New York Times and National Public Radio—to forego discussion of Judge’s homosexuality. Instead, they shaped a simpler, more conventional, less controversial version of the hero of the day.

The stories about Mychal Judge functioned as a silver lining, a shining example of generic heroism and specifically Catholic virtue that compensated for the horror of the crippling attack on New York. They expressed the powerful drive for consensus that accompanies journalistic coverage of crises and wars, and of the social role religion is assigned in times of stress.

At those times, the permissible range of dissent and controversy and difference contracts. And some stories—like the one about the heroic, gay priest, a story that in a less tumultuous time would certainly attract vigorous coverage—are passed over in silence.


Hit Counter