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
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
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
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
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
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.