Returning to Normalcy
by Andrew Walsh
Right after September 11 journalists all over the country charted what
seemed to be a startling surge in religious observance. The trend stories
started when the Gallup Poll reported a six percent increase in church
attendance the week after the attacks and the Barna Organization reported
that its surveys recorded a 24 percent spike in church attendance in the
final weeks of September.
Going to worship and giving blood became the twin tokens of drastic
social change in an apparently transformed America. "Terror Attacks
Could Change Paths of Faith," a headline speculated in the September 30
edition of the New York Times. Things were more affirmative in other
cities: "‘Wake-Up Call’ Helps Fill Pews" reported the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette on October 7. "People Seeking Solace in God; World’s
Turmoil Hard to Handle," observed the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram
& Gazette on October 18. And in the notoriously non-observant
Northwest, the Spokane Spokesman-Review concluded on November 17,
"Faith Restored: Church Attendance Soared Following the September 11
Attacks; As Everyday People Sought Out the Comfort and Hope of
In short, the revival of religion and public piety played big all over
the nation in the extensive coverage of the aftermath the terrorist
onslaught. But then, to the chagrin of many, church attendance sagged back
toward normal levels.
Felix Hoover, the Columbus Dispatch’s religion reporter, was
among the first to report that the church attendance boom might be
evaporating. The headline for his October 13 story captured the uncertainty
of the moment—one born of on-the-ground reporting that was not yet
supported by survey data. "Many Turn to God, But For How Long?: Worship
Might Increase Again This Weekend." After canvassing many religious
leaders in Ohio’s capital, Hoover led with this assessment: "Mosque
attendance is back up; church attendance is back down."
By late November and early December, stories were appearing all over
noting that the post-September 11 spike had subsided. Here’s a sampling of
the headlines: "As Attacks’ Impact Recedes, A Return to Religion as
Usual," from the November 26 New York Times; "Post Attack
Crowds Thin at Churches," from the December 11 Houston Chronicle;
"Losing Our Religion?" from the December 16 Fort Worth
By year’s end, the end of the trend stood confirmed beyond doubt. And
on February 18 the Washington Times’ Larry Witham nailed it down
with an extensive review of new survey data: "The outpouring of
religious activity in America after the September 11 terrorist attacks has
subsided, the crisis-driven spark not catching fire, according to polls and
Laurie Goodstein’s November 26 report in the New York Times
exemplified the counter-trend stories. It began by recounting the experience
of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, where attendance jumped by
about a third for the first several weeks after September 11 and then fell
back to normal.
"Americans, who after the attacks turned to religion in an
outpouring that some religious leaders hailed as a spiritual ‘great
awakening,’ have now mostly returned to their former habits,"
Goodstein wrote. "It looks like people were treating this like a
bereavement, a shorter-term funeral kind of thing, where they went to church
or synagogue to grieve," Frank M. Newport, the Gallup Poll’s
editor-in-chief, told her.
Goodstein’s piece, which appeared in the Times’ running
section "A Nation Challenged," was typical in carrying an
undercurrent of surprise, both at the strength of the religious reaction to
September 11 and at its rapid dissipation: "The return to religion as
usual is a stark contrast to the thunderclap after the attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon. Stunned Americans flocked for prayer and
comfort not only to their local houses of worship, but also to sports
stadiums, public plazas and convention centers."
Stories following the "deflation trend" tended to quote experts
from two professions: clergy and psychotherapists.
The Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era reported that local
psychologists—who, as a group, tend to emphasize religion’s function as
a coping mechanism—saw nothing surprising in a relatively short-term
response to the crisis. "Everyday life-conflicts with a spouse, at
work, getting the kids to do their homework—initially after September 11,
people were talking about feeling anxious and unsure, but it didn’t take
long for the issues immediate in their lives to be the issues they had to
focus on," said psychologist Kenneth Ralph.
Similarly, reporters easily located rabbis, Catholic priests, and Islamic
clerics who had little trouble adjusting to the notion that tragedies like
the attacks of September 11 provoke sharp but short-lived bursts of
religious observance. For example, the AP’s Rachel Zoll reported on
December 17 that Rabbi Perry Netter of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles
"agreed that it was naïve to think that clergy could transform
American’s view of religion in a few weeks."
Netter saw attendance at Sabbath services increase by a few hundred
immediately after September 11, then return to the average of 500 within
weeks. "When you go through a trauma, where do you turn? Religion. Once
the trauma has been assimilated, you return to the regular level of denial
that we all live with, and then we go back to our habits," Netter said.
But it proved more difficult to find evangelical Protestants who didn’t
think that something was wrong with that reaction.
"What I’ve learned out of all this is we are indeed a people of
short memories," the Rev. Ken Myers, associate pastor of Hendricks
Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told Paul Pinkham of the Jacksonville
Florida Times-Union in one of a spate of "six-month
Disappointment over sputtering revival is a constant burden for
evangelicals, who relentlessly scrutinize events for signs of God’s
forceful action to change human hearts. "I would love nothing better
than to see our nation in a long spiritual revival, and the possibility is
still before us, Charlotte Observer "Faith & Values"
columnist and Baptist pastor Al Cadenhead wrote on January 5.
"Unfortunately, statistics indicate overall worship levels are now
about where they were before September 11. Worship leaders are coming to
terms with the fact that this spiritual revival we are hearing about does
not necessarily translate into church attendance."
Other evangelicals expressed their disappointment much more forcefully.
"After the attack, millions of nominally churched or generally
irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore
stability and a sense of meaning to life," declared George Barna, the
Southern California evangelical survey research guru, in a November press
release. "Fortunately, many of them turned to the church.
Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently
life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance."
In fact, prominent evangelicals—Franklin Graham, Charles Colson, Laura
Bush—were the ones who fueled the sense that something spiritually special
was happening in September and October. "All across America people are
asking questions about God, people are asking about the meaning of
life," Colson told the Boston Herald’s Eric Convey on October
5. "Why are the churches full? It’s because something like this…focuses
Evangelicals yearn for a revival, sift the news for signs that it has
begun, and compete to be first in line to trumpet the good news. For years,
Franklin Graham, bidding fair to succeed his father Billy as the nation’s
foremost evangelist, has been proclaiming that almost every major news story
proves that revival is on the way.
Deeply rooted in the evangelical worldview is the sense that revival
comes, to use Larry Witham’s phrase, from "a crisis-driven
spark." The rub is that most sparks don’t grow into major fires. Yet
even after it became clear that church attendance was dropping to
"normal" levels, many evangelicals were reluctant to give up their
"There’s no question that things are different now," the Rev.
Willie George, pastor of Tulsa’s independent Church on the Move and the
city’s largest church, told Bill Sherman of the Tulsa World on
December 8. "We’ve seen a revival of sorts," he said, "an
increase in spirituality, probably depth would be a better word. People are
reassessing their spirituality."
Numbers or "depth"? Barna and Gallup, the major survey research
organizations that track church attendance, tend to treat quantity as an
accurate measure for spiritual quality, fixated as they perpetually are on
the question of whether a revival is starting or running out of gas. But
some reporters describing the religious reaction to September 11 did probe
below the surface discussion of head counts.
Stories in newspapers as widely scattered as Massachusetts, Florida, and
California suggested that significant numbers of "inquirers" were
making their way into religious education programs in the wake of the
bombings. "Numerous pastors say they have been surprised by the…surging
participation in various church programs by people who before Sept. 11 had
virtually no interest in them," Michael Paulson wrote in the October 28
Boston Globe. "Many of these new, terrorism-inspired seekers are
young adults who had rarely stepped into a church, let alone expressed any
desire to learn about Christianity."
A number of journalists reported as well that suburban megachurches—already
tuned-up in the process of locating and assimilating hitherto unaffiliated
newcomers—seemed to be doing better at holding attendance gains. And in a
February 9 commentary piece Martha Allen Sawyer of the Minneapolis Star
Tribune suggested that the "straight" religious revival was
much less striking than a revival of America’s civil religion—a
suggestion that deserves a good deal more follow-up.
But it was the evangelical temper that predominated. Ever since the 17th
century, the cycle of proclaiming revival, celebrating it, and then
displaying extravagant regret and condemnation for the human shortcomings
seen as responsible for false starts, has been a central feature of American
public life. Nor did the "jeremiad," the forceful denunciation of
a people that often and repeatedly fails to do the right thing, die with
Since September 11, beneath the blare of patriotic brass, there has been
a bitter undertone of journalistic reproach that we Americans have betrayed
the tragedy by living out our normal lives.
On January 21, Cindy Stauffer of the Lancaster New Era sneered,
"We have turned out attention from donating blood, going to church, and
giving to others back to concentrating on ourselves and our old lives and
shoveling snow, and, hey, whose turn is it to clean out the dishwasher and
did we ever return that movie to the video store."
"At Last Our Priorities Are Back in the Wrong Place," read the
headline over St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Kevin Horrigan’s
column of February 24. "Well, shattered nation, good news: September 11
didn’t change everything after all…[T]he only legacy of September 11 is
longer lines at airports, not longer attention spans. We still prefer to be
amused and distracted rather than involved and committed."
And in a gimlet-eyed commentary piece entitled "Hoodwinked,"
the Portland Oregonian’s Rene Denfeld declared, "The headlines
blare. We’ve changed. That’s been the media’s mantra of the past six
months. Since September 11 divorce rates are supposedly down, marriages up.
Young people are enlisting in droves. Churches are packed. We spend more
time with our families and volunteer countless hours. We’re stockpiling
guns and our medicine cabinets are bursting with Cipro.
"As one newspaper story put it, we are a "people more serious,
more thoughtful, more committed to what matters…faith, family, neighbors,
home, community. There’s one problem. None of it is true."
Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. Once again, America has failed to be converted.