The controversy regarding the absence of religious leaders or public prayers at the annual commemoration of the 9/11 attacks at Ground Zero is being touted by some conservatives as a sign of a repellent secularism that is hostile to faith. They ask, not unreasonably, why can’t religion take its place at the ceremony? And they point to the absence of evangelicals from a planned interfaith prayer service as another sign of the willingness of some to expand the culture wars against religion even into something as sacred as the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
But anyone thinking of using the Ground Zero ceremony as fodder in a conservative counter-attack on behalf of faith is making a mistake. The existing format on every anniversary of the atrocity in New York is a reasonable compromise that not only reflects the need to avoid conflicts but also the wishes of the families of the victims. Those who have attempted to create a dispute on this point, especially those commenting from afar who are unaware or insensitive to the situation, need to lower their voices and listen to the families. They should also realize that if they get their wish it would reignite the simmering controversy regarding the plans for a Ground Zero mosque that convulsed New York last year.
The battle to keep the public square from being a place where religion is unwelcome is a worthy cause. But there is a difference between those fights and this manufactured controversy.
Just because religion should not be excluded from public life does not mean it must be included in every ceremony. The fashion in which 9/11 has been remembered at Ground Zero for the last nine years is both solemn and appropriate, as it centers on the reading of the names of the victims. While benedictions from religious leaders would not be out of place, they are also not necessary.
It should also be understood that if the commemoration were transformed into an interfaith extravaganza, this would only create the need for equal time for every religion and set off more bad feelings about the inclusions of Muslims. Any attempt to exclude an Islamic leader would be wrong, because Muslims numbered among the victims. But it would also serve –as the misguided effort to create an Islamic community center in the shadow of Ground Zero did last year–to afford radical Muslims and foolish liberals an opportunity to recast the narrative of the attacks. It is bad enough that the White House set forth guidelines on commemorations that sought to dilute the meaning of the attacks and turn them into a bland service unconnected to the need to remember the Islamist war on the West. Converting the 9/11 ceremonies into one more event devoted more to giving equal time to every group rather than focusing on the victims would be misguided.
As for the Washington ceremony, having already gone down the path of interfaith inclusion, there was no reason to exclude Southern Baptists or any other group for that matter. The argument over that event, which has been moved from the National Cathedral to the Washington Hebrew Congregation, can be swiftly defused by just taking all comers, even if that means creating a laundry list of faith leaders who must be allowed to speak.
But the New York ceremony should be left as it is. Mayor Bloomberg has been on the wrong side of many issues, including the Ground Zero mosque. But he is right this time. Those who wish to turn this into a culture war football are doing faith no favors.