This Sunday is the tenth anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on our country that left nearly 3,000 dead, the great majority of them in the ashes and rubble of the World Trade Center in New York City. As Americans pause on September 11 in mournful remembrance of that dreadful day, many of them will mark the moment with a prayer for the dead, for the loved ones from whom they were taken, and for their country. And such praying would be a normal part of any such commemoration even if the anniversary were not on a Sunday. It’s just what countless Americans do.
But there won’t be any praying at the City of New York’s official anniversary ceremonies this Sunday. At least, there won’t be any voiced at the microphones by invited speakers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided to invite no clergy to be speakers at the event. It turns out that this omission of clergy participants has been a normal pattern of annual commemorations of 9/11. But on this tenth anniversary, the decision has finally been noticed, and it has become hugely controversial. According to the Wall Street Journal, the mayor said this week on his radio show, “It’s a civil ceremony. There are plenty of opportunities for people to have their religious ceremonies. . . . Some people don’t want to go to a religious ceremony with another religion. And the number of different religions in this city are [sic] really quite amazing.” He went on to deny the explanation that his own aides had been using to defend his decision — that it would just be “too difficult” to choose among so many faiths for the limited number of clergy who could be invited to speak. No, the mayor said, “It isn’t that you can’t pick and choose, you shouldn’t pick and choose. . . . If you want to have a service for your religion, you can have it in your church or in a field, or whatever.”
There is a whole universe of error in this statement by the mayor — about the place of religion in people’s lives, and about the place of religion in American society and politics. At least the earlier explanation by his aides had something superficially respectable about it, albeit still terribly erroneous. They seemed to think that the sheer diversity and multiplicity of religious viewpoints in America are a source of division and conflict rather than a sign of our strength, freedom, and ability to get along. It is impossible to include a representative of every single religious perspective in such events. Choose five clergy to speak at the 9/11 commemoration, and the next five or ten or twenty clergy will feel that their faith’s perspective has somehow been excluded from the American mosaic, pushed outside the circle of the country’s remembrance of the day. The governing principle of this approach is that someone is bound to take offense if some are included and others excluded, so it is better not to include anyone. If that gives offense to a great many religious people across many different faiths, still no one is peculiarly wounded by the exclusion or condemned to feeling left out. You can just hunker down and take the heat for the decision. At least no one is really in a position to sue!
In offering this defense that one should offend many people a little so as not to offend a few people a lot, the mayor’s aides underestimated the generosity of spirit of their fellow Americans. Most of the diversity of religious faiths in America, for one thing, is a diversity across Christian denominations. Many of the exact same prayers are uttered by all of them in common, and on a civic occasion such as this, where nothing sacramental occurs, the ecumenical fellow-feeling of America’s Christians typically comes through very strongly. The largest of the country’s non-Christian faiths — beginning with Judaism and Islam but not ending there — could easily be included along with Christian clergy. And any groups not represented in the ceremony by their own clergy can easily be made to feel included by the language and tenor of the prayers. No one knows better than the typical American priest, rabbi, or minister how to craft a prayer inclusively for an appropriate audience, so that it is not “denominational” or exclusionary, but speaks from the heart to the Almighty on behalf of everyone present. They actually have some practice at this.