Prayer, Remembrance, Secularism, and the 9/11 Memorial
There has been extensive commentary, outside the mainstream media, about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision not to feature clergy or official prayer at the memorial service commemorating the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The event will also dedicate the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. This writer fully concurs with those who find this decision an affront to the survivors of the thousands of victims who were and are religious.
Anyone who lived in the New York area ten years ago can attest to the near-daily keening of bagpipes and tolling of funeral bells in the months that followed. So many of the firefighters, police officers, and civilian casualties were Catholic that this is especially galling to me and members of my faith. Catholic Advocate joins with the many New Yorkers urging the Mayor to reconsider his decision.
But, this episode is not only disturbing as an isolated matter of public policy. One cannot help but contrast this decision with the actions and behavior of civic leaders in the immediate aftermath of the attack. A comparison of the differing impulses and decisions of representative politicians and media then and now offers a compelling and frankly discouraging perspective on how secularism and anti-traditionalism have become embedded in the politics of the northeastern states in the past ten years. Moreover, this episode can be seen not only as a spat about prayers at Ground Zero on September 11th, but rather as a proxy for the ongoing dispute between religious freedom and elite secularism.
That day, when the second tower collapsed, leaving a terrifying cloud, CNN’s Paula Zahn asked her viewers to say a prayer. Early in the evening, members of both parties came together on the steps of Congress to sing one song. The song was “God Bless America.” President Bush addressed a nationally-televised prayer memorial at National Cathedral in Washington three days later. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani held a prayer service at Yankee Stadium. These responses seemed unscripted, unforced, and natural. No one questioned the value, wisdom or efficacy of prayer, nor of the intercession of clergy, during that time of pain, vulnerability, grief, and anger. It seemed appropriate, even necessary.
Today, most of the major media has remained silent as one politician unilaterally decides that religion has no place at the 10-year anniversary. Indeed, the Mayor seems mildly annoyed that anyone questions his sagacity in this matter, as though to suggest having a prayer said at a memorial is somehow illogical. So, what has changed? Indeed, this episode makes one wonder not merely, “Why is Bloomberg doing this?” but rather begs the further question, “What is behind this debate?”
As for his motives, Mayor Bloomberg insists that his decision reflects no change from previous protocol. I feel certain that there have been prayers recited at remembrances in previous years, but even if my memory is inaccurate, this rationale fails to address the added importance of the dedication of the official 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Combined with the momentous resonance of the 10th anniversary, certainly there ought to be a place in the extensive program for a member of the clergy to ask blessings on the proceedings and on the new structures on that hallowed ground. So, even if we take the Mayor at his word, there is no clear reason to ban prayer from this ceremony.
The mayor himself has unintentionally given the primary reason why there should be an option for public prayer at the ceremony. Last summer, the city was embroiled in a controversy over the building of a new mosque and Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. The majority of New Yorkers were opposed, but the project will go on regardless, as Bloomberg emerged as its major champion. His reasoning was simple, as he repeated many times. Referencing the First Amendment, he said that the government has no right to tell anyone how to pray or where to pray.
You will notice that barely a year later, in a circumstance involving not Islam but (primarily) Christianity and Judaism, the mayor is telling people how they can and can’t pray, and where they can or can’t pray. Isn’t this, in the mayor’s own terms, a blatant violation of first Amendment freedoms? To answer in part, one must realize that to the secular elite all religions are not equal and thus are not all entitled to equal treatment, the Constitution be damned. Such obvious and verifiable hypocrisy from such an intelligent man points us once again to a deeper meaning and deeper motive for the decision on the Memorial prayers and clergy.
It is the latter question — “What is behind this debate?” — which reveals so much more about this decision and will show that this is not an isolated incident regarding the mayor’s preference on one policy issue. Rather, it stands as an example of an overweening and omnipresent attitude among political elites who effectively work in opposition to Christianity, Catholicism in particular, and devout Judaism.
This is not the first time the mayor has stepped into the intersection of faith and the public square. Just two months ago, he personally lobbied wavering members of the NY State Senate in the days before their vote on same-sex marriage. These meetings, combined with his deep pockets, helped New York to become the latest state to experiment with the concept of marriage in this way. In doing so, he was conspicuously working against the avowed goals of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, the spiritual leadership of the largest religious voting bloc in his city. Bloomberg also ignored the teachings and wishes of the Hasidic Jewish community, another key source of votes in his coalition.
Beginning this week, New York schools will start promulgating a controversial new sex education curriculum, which is opposed not merely by Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, but by the Vatican as well. This criticism has floated over the mayor like water off a duck’s back. Indeed, he often refuses to comment on such controversies. The reason is, he does not see these anti-traditional teachings as in any way controversial, and he also shows a blatant contempt for those who base some of their decisions on religious teachings. Mayor Bloomberg has made it clear he is not a religious believer, and thus he barely deems to listen to people, even his constituents, who utilize religious moral teachings in debate.
Another ongoing controversy, again centered on Ground Zero, illustrates my point once more. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, which was steps from Tower Two, was destroyed on 9/11. The Port Authority (PA) and then-Mayor Giuliani promised the congregation the funds to rebuild from the $20 billion given to the area by the Federal Government. But despite constant appeals, the St. Nicholas congregation has repeatedly been denied the right to rebuild, even after they offered to rebuild with their own funds.
St. Nicholas has the deed and the title to property within Ground Zero, which is not the case with the Mosque discussed earlier. Yet ten years on, there is no new St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. The mayor could have pushed this case through the Port Authority with ease, yet has been oddly silent on the St. Nicholas matter. This week he has boasted of the hundreds of millions the city has spent on parks, roads, schools, and other amenities in the area of the World Trade Center. Mayor Bloomberg has refused to stand up for the rebuilding of a church that was already there and that would be pleased to rebuild without any financial outlay from the City or the Port Authority.
Islam, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to America as a demographic force, and it’s teachings bore little impact on the founding and generation of this nation or this city. (If one is not sure where Orthodox Christianity stands on this spectrum, consider the rich heritage of Astoria, Queens.) “Diverse” religions get support not based upon their teachings or heritage or even the fair application of the First Amendment, but rather because they are different from and embody a contrast to the established or traditional way of life.
The goal of politicians such as Mayor Bloomberg is to marginalize traditional religion, and in so doing to marginalize the values, beliefs, and attitudes of voters and citizens who rely on faith as part of their political decision-making. In less than ten years, the pendulum in New York has swung away from tradition and the protection of religious liberty towards the politics of elite secularism.
By Vincent Giandurco of Fairfield, Connecticut, a graduate of Catholic University active in New York and Connecticut politics.