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.
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.