Did 9/11 Change America Religiously? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Did 9/11 Change America Religiously?

A recent survey reports New York area regular church attendance has increased by about one third over the last decade, though surely many factors besides 9/11 contributed. The increased religiosity in New York is ironic given its mayor’s controversial decision to exclude clergy and formal prayers from the city’s 9/11 commemoration.

Christianity Today magazine recently asked prominent evangelicals to reflect on how 9/11 affected them and their ministries. Liberal evangelical writer Philip Yancey reflected politically, noting the last decade has “taught us the limits of force” and that “imposing democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan has come at a terrible cost to all parties, with no guarantee of long-term success.” He sardonically observed that Tunisia and Egypt “gained freedom almost overnight in a grassroots protest against powerful regimes.” He should have asked whether these anti-authoritarian revolts, whose ultimate outcomes also have “no guarantee of long-term success,” would have occurred absent democracy (however flawed and potentially transitory) in Iraq and Afghanistan. He cited noble Christian missionary families in recent times who forgave the murderers of their martyred loved ones. Such mercy is indeed required for persons of deep faith, but civil governments are vocationally called to defend their people, not turn the cheek. Yancey then seemingly likened America’s post 9/11 treatment of Muslims to historic Christian/European persecution of the Jews. “We dare not do to Muslims what we have, to our shame, done to Jews,” he concluded, as though Muslim Americans are potentially threatened by pogroms or Holocaust.

Equally provocatively, United Methodist Bishop and popular preacher/writer Will Willimon, a prominent pacifist, lamented how the most powerful, militarized nation in the world” thought of itself as “an innocent victim” after 9/11, with “deadly” consequences. Bush and Obama spent “billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States,” he opined. Although a savvy theologian, Willimon’s political observations are often breathtakingly facile. He regretted the supposed “giddy enthusiasm” of some Christians for war amid the troubling “ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas,” revealing “9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat.” American Christianity had purportedly “lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God.” Al Qaeda and America’s “flag-waving boosters” were of “one mind” in rejecting the “nonviolent way of Jesus.” Feeling “vulnerable,” American Christians “reached for the flag, not the Cross.” Willimon and the neo-Anabaptists now so popular in evangelical academia chronically reject traditional Christian distinctions between civil responsibilities and devotion to God. For them, any recognition of earthly place or temporal rule is idolatrous. The result is typically sneering commentary that treats average believers with condescension. Those average, supposedly mindless flag wavers in America’s churches are often more theologically astute than their snooty, elitist critics.

None of the respondents in the Christianity Today forum directly commented much on 9/11’s sinister perpetrators and their motives. Perhaps the question posed to them required mostly self-reflection. Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, noted how 9/11 caused her more powerfully to realize her own sinfulness and God’s ultimate judgment of the world. Her message seemed more spiritually timeless than Willimon’s political tirade. It also recalled the late neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol’s somewhat nostalgic recollection after 9/11 that American clergy of an earlier era routinely exploited national calamities to call for personal repentance. Today, social rants and finger wagging at others often seem more popular. 

In his forum comments, Christian songwriter Matt Redman recounted that he and his wife after 9/11 composed the hymn “Blessed Be Your Name.” He described it as a call to trust God no matter the season. I once heard this lovely song in a remote country church, illustrating the reach of this still fairly young hymn. It’s a Job-like antidote to the sometimes overly sunny optimism of American religiosity.

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name.

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

The true impact of 9/11 on America’s religious faith is likely immeasurable by any survey. Hopefully the horrors of that day, with subsequent days, have reminded many of life’s fragility and yet the hope that Divine Providence has a ruling purpose that merits trust and praise.

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