This Week in God

This week, the God Machine takes a look at a growing uproar among religious conservatives over a 9/11 remembrance event tomorrow at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

The second Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York clergy members of many faiths joined elected officials at Yankee Stadium in a city-sponsored memorial ceremony that melded the sacred and the secular, replete with flags, prayers and tears.

Ten years later, any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has come under attack by some religious and political leaders for not including clergy members as speakers at Sunday’s official ceremony at ground zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Religious right groups, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, and Fox News have been pretty worked up about this — one Fox News personality seriously argued that a secular service would be “a victory for the terrorists” — but Bloomberg, to his credit, hasn’t budged.

To appreciate why, note that an interfaith prayer service planned for Washington tomorrow did not include a Southern Baptist or other evangelical minister, sparking outrage from evangelical Christian leaders. Inviting one, evangelicals said, should mean inviting all.

Had Bloomberg invited pastors from some faiths to the official ceremony, others would want to know why they were excluded from an event intended to honor victims from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Don Byrd of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty seemed to have the appropriate response: “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. Conservative activists who suddenly this year are excited by this decision are mistaken in suggesting it represents some betrayal of duty. Staying away from official prayer — I’m sure there will still be a moment of silence for reflection and prayer by anyone who wishes to pray — avoids all the problems such prayer brings: who will speak? which religious perspectives will be represented? if a distinctly denominational prayer is offered, why wouldn’t followers of other faiths be offended? After all, adherents of many, many faiths were killed on September 11. Is the proper national response necessarily Christian? Why would that be?”

That strikes me as a very good question.