But if the mayor’s aides got this business badly wrong, the mayor himself got it infinitely worse. It wasn’t the difficulty of choice and the possibility of offense being taken by the excluded that concerned Mayor Bloomberg. It was the mere presence of religion at the commemoration to which he objected. In the phrase made famous by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the mayor prefers the “naked public square” — stripped bare of religion. A solemn public occasion that concerns Americans as fellow citizens should not be tainted by the presence of religion, an aspect of American life that is private and should remain private. “If you want to have a service for your religion, you can have it in your church or in a field, or whatever.”
Of course a religious “service” in the strict sense, complete with creeds and sacraments and prophetic calls to belief in particular revelations, is for churches to have. That’s not what anyone wants at the civic commemoration of 9/11. But Mayor Bloomberg can’t seem to imagine clergy, and prayer, and religious sentiments, being part of an event without its being a “service” of the kind that takes place in mosques, synagogues, or churches. Is he really a man of such limited experience, such poverty of imagination? Throughout our country’s history, clergy-led prayer — and even statesman-led prayer — has been a part of our civic life. Do we really need to recite the litany of examples, from George Washington’s addition of “so help me God” to the presidential oath, to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to FDR’s D-Day prayer?
And for the many millions of Americans of all faiths, their religious beliefs are not shut up inside the walls of those places of worship. They carry their faith with them every day, from waking to sleeping, or at least many of them try to. It is a part of their public life with their fellow Americans as much as it is central to their private lives and their sense of who they are. To be told that in the public square their faith must be hidden or go unspoken is to experience an assault on their identity as faithful citizens.
Maybe the mayor imagines he is acting on some constitutional norm about the “separation of church and state.” If so, he is gravely mistaken about what the Constitution requires at the intersection of faith and politics. It does not require that an official ethic of “secularism” be adopted in public life, while religious faith is chased into houses of worship and private homes. Such an approach converts the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom into an attack on it. The Islamists who attacked our country ten years ago hated us, in large part, for the very principle that the mayor now traduces.
Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to exclude clergy from this Sunday’s event is bad constitutionalism, bad politics, and bad civic ethics. It is a breach of faith with the people of New York, and all his fellow Americans who will remember 9/11 along with them.
— Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J. William E. Simon Jr. is co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation.