Everyone doing "top stories of the year" has selected the Sept. 11 attacks as the most important event of 2001. In this column I want to name four important effects of Sept. 11 on American religious life.

Sept. 11 defanged Christian right culture warriors.

The striking religiosity, moral decency, and national unity that emerged in the wake of the attacks simply shattered both the context and the content of the hard right's critique of our nation.

In terms of context, it became impossible--as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell discovered--to continue under wartime conditions to offer the bitter polemic against American cultural drift and moral decline that for years has been the bread and butter of many conservative Christian commentators.

In terms of content, the stirring response of most Americans to the challenges faced by our nation made it harder to sustain the charge that the United States has become a moral wasteland. While there are many moral problems we continue to face as a nation, our response has been a reassuring affirmation of continuing moral strength.

Sept. 11 focused attention on Islam and reshaped our understanding of religious diversity.

In the process of learning about our attackers, an interesting trajectory developed. At first, everyone from the president on down attempted to declare that Islamic fundamentalism was an aberration from what in its essence is a religion of peace. But the next stage of analysis revealed that, in fact, a large portion of the Islamic world--for a variety of discernible historical reasons--has never made the painful yet necessary accommodation to political and religious pluralism that the majority of Christian groups have undergone over the last century or more.

Further, the existence of a very strong "jihad" strand within Muslim tradition has been, after more examination, impossible to deny. All of this has made it harder to sustain the weak form of universalist ecumenism so prevalent in some circles--the idea that all religions are equally valid alternatives paths to God, and all are "true." The content of what people believe really does matter, and that content is not "equivalent" in all religions or even within particular religions.

Efforts to tighten the explicit connection between religion and American politics have been set back, while, paradoxically, the frequency of religious references in public rhetoric has increased.

Thoughtful Americans have been horrified at the clearly disastrous impact of Islamic fundamentalism's marriage of religion and politics. Americans who tend toward a Christian theocratic vision of politics have never been more marginalized. More specifically, the president's faith-based initiative likely will be weakened beyond recognition or will fail altogether, at least that part of it that he cannot get through via executive orders.

Yet at the same time, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the essential religiosity of the American people has never been more obvious. "God bless America" was everywhere, as were references to God, prayer, the Bible, and faith in the speeches of the president and many other leaders. A close reading of these speeches reveals that efforts are being made to be as inclusive as possible with religious references, but no one will soon label ours a secular nation. We are not France or Sweden, and will not be anytime soon.

The events of 9/11 have revealed the weakening of both the just war tradition and historic pacifism at the leadership level of American Christianity.

The defense of just war criteria were not very visible after 9/11. Many Catholic and Protestant religious leaders opposed military action by the United States, but surprisingly few offered a recognizable brand of pacifism to do so. Instead, what surfaced was a kind of limp handwringing ethic that serves neither church nor state very well.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus