Baha'i News -- America’s spiritual awakening has waxed and waned in the wake of the attacks

America’s spiritual awakening has waxed and waned in the wake of the attacks

By James D. Davis
Religion Editor
Posted September 11 2002

Tragedy, they say, brings us closer to God, confronting us with issues of life and death.

But maybe not this time. Not as a result of the attack on our nation last Sept. 11.

We had a brief flowering of church attendance, maybe six months. Some book sales and Web site visits. Then more or less back to normal.

Religious observers are either wondering or denying. But few are talking revival anymore. And if spirituality has risen since 9/11, it hasn't risen in the usual ways.

Not that pastors and others didn't help in consoling a grieved, anguished nation. And they know their job isn't finished. A few examples:

The American Bible Society in New York will follow an overnight candlelight vigil with scheduled prayers and music, including a choral performance of Mozart's Rolling Requiem.

Churches across the country, including First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach, plan to ring their bells today in memory of the tragedy. In the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, the churches will be asked to ring bells at six times: for the plane strike at each World Trade Center tower, then its collapse, then also for the crash at the Pentagon and the plane that fell over Pennsylvania.

Habitat for Humanity is shifting its annual Day of Prayer and Action to coincide with this week. The Broward chapter has sent cards with a suggested prayer -- "Give us the courage to speak out for those who have no voice" -- to 400 churches and synagogues.

Numerous religious groups have scheduled their own memorial services, and many will take part in public ceremonies as well.

A massive service today at Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium has the support of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, Bahai and interfaith bodies. And at the Young Circle bandshell in Hollywood, a new organization called Jews and Muslims will take part in a commemoration tonight with its co-founders, a Jewish businessman and a local imam, among the speakers.

The unity is a clear legacy of the 9/11 tragedy, says the Rev. Brian Flanagan, ecumenical officer of the Catholic Palm Beach Diocese.

"When people went into the [World Trade Center] buildings, they didn't ask if anyone was Jewish or Catholic or Protestant," says the priest, who will speak at the Jupiter service. "All the barriers fell.

"Even if people aren't attending as much now, I think the tragedy grabbed our attention. Showed us our mortality. Led to asking big questions about life."

Religion clearly was crucial in coping with 9/11. Nearly half of all Americans told pollster George Barna that their religious faith helped them respond to the attacks. Women, Southerners and evangelical Christians were most often likely to have relied on their faith, according to the Barna study, released on Sept. 3.

Yet the overall numbers don't point to a big change in worship attendance. A slight "bounce," lasting a few months. Then back to normal.

Just after the attacks, 47 percent of Americans said they attended church or synagogue within the last seven days -- one of the highest rates ever measured by the Gallup Poll. But the rate fell to 44 percent in March; still high, but more like the attendance in 2000.

When Gallup asked how important religion was in people's lives, 88 percent said it was "important" or "very important" in September. But by May, only 86 did, similar to a pre-9/11 level.

Those who claimed membership in a church or synagogue decreased as well -- from 66 percent in December to 64 percent in May.

And when asked if they thought religion was increasing its influence on American life, only 53 percent said "yes" in March -- a sharp slide from the 71 percent who said so in December.

Rabbi Pinny Andrusier of Cooper City compares the national piety, or lack of it, with the way an individual family mourns.

"I'm not surprised that attendance is down," says Andrusier, spiritual leader of Chabad of Southwest Broward. "I witness that even with people who lose a loved one. During the year, their attendance goes down. But it's still in the back of their minds."

It's possible that religious groups were answering questions that people weren't asking, says the Rev. Frank Geer, co-author of Where Was God on Sept. 11? (BrownTrout, May).

"People came to church for comfort and healing," says Geer, an Episcopal priest. "If they were offered the opportunity to commit themselves to Christ, they went somewhere else. The opportunity was not evangelical, but to provide a depth of faith that was not there before."

Yet 41 percent said their churches had done nothing at all to address the attacks or their implications, according to the Barna study, released on Sept. 3. Less than a quarter said their churches had devoted sermons, special services or even prayers specific to 9/11. And among non-Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, 56 percent said their congregations had ignored the event.

David Hackett, a specialist on sociology of religion at the University of Florida, sees a boost in God-and-country faith or "civil religion." But he also notes a trend toward suspicion, such as detaining bearded, dark-skinned men at airports.

"The kind of religion you're seeing is a fearful, bunker-based mentality," Hackett says. "You can see a decrease in people traveling abroad. You dig a foxhole to protect yourself. It's a normal human response.

"But I don't think there has been an increase in spirituality, which has been increasingly separated from religion. The movement is more toward a privatized, individual religiosity. People go more to therapists than ministers."

Indeed, self-help outlets seem to have been big winners.

In an otherwise unhealthy book market, religious book sales rose 4.7 percent, or $1.31 billion -- a hike that the American Association of Publishers say may have sprung from the 9/11 effect. Zondervan, a major religious publisher, shipped a million Bibles in September, twice the normal rate. And sales were still 20 percent above the previous year this past February.

Christian music sales likewise jumped by 23 percent in September, with new releases by two artists -- Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman -- making the Billboard Top 200 chart. The trend continued this year, with 23.4 million albums sold through June, or 3.6 million more than the first half of last year.

Even as church attendance has returned to pre-9/11 levels, the TV networks are gearing up for round-the-clock programming, notes journalism professor Stewart Hoover, of the University of Colorado.

"Saturation programming of 9/11 makes more sense as a religious issue than as news," says Hoover, who will speak on the topic in November for a conference of the Religious Research Association. "The media form the place where Americans go for commemoration and mourning."

Perhaps the uncertain spiritual direction of the nation is because we are still in the suffering stage, says Sophy Burnham, author of the new book The Path of Prayer: Reflections on Prayer and True Stories of How it Affects Our Lives (Viking), which comes out Thursday. "You can see people going to church, but how many are spiritual? It's hard to define. What draws us to spiritual roots is suffering. People often define spirituality according to their joys and sufferings."

If consolation is the churches' main function after 9/11, more will be needed. Father Geer, a chaplain at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, recalls a conference for more than 3,000 religious leaders in November. They heard from veterans of other emergencies, including Hurricane Andrew in Miami-Dade and the Oklahoma City bombing.

"Their message was, don't expect this to go away. Upgrade your counseling services. People are going to need them for a long time."

James D. Davis can be reached at or 954-356-4730.

©Copyright 2002, Sun-Sentinel

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