A banner weekend for civil religion

September 9, 2011

New York City mayor Michael
Bloomberg is planning ceremonies for the 9/11 anniversary without the
participation of clergy. Jay Sekulow et
al.
think this is an attack on religion. Jim Wallis et al. are criticizing both sides of
this debate and also calling for less criticism of others, or something like that.

Variations on this headline
are all over: "Bloomberg bans clergy from 9/11 ceremony but Ground Zero
mosque OK
." A lot of observers see this as an ironic or hypocritical
inconsistency on the mayor's part. It isn't: religious freedom and a secular
civil arena are two sides of the same coin. Thanks largely to this principle,
Americans enjoy what's arguably the most robustly and diversely religious
landscape in the world--at least when we're not too busy screaming about how we
don't like the way this shakes out in a particular instance.

Meanwhile in Washington, the
main 9/11 anniversary event planned for the National Cathedral has been moved to the Kennedy Center following
damage to the cathedral by the earthquake and a subsequent crane collapse.
Cathedral Dean Samuel T. Lloyd III said that while safety concerns require the
move, "at the same time we will not let obstacles put in our way stop us from
fulfilling our mission as the spiritual home for the nation."

A separate interfaith prayer
vigil--now moved from the cathedral to a large Jewish congregation in
DC--includes as Christian representatives Dean Lloyd and Episcopal Bishop of
Washington John Chane. In response to Southern Baptist leader Frank Page's
criticism about the lack of evangelical participation, cathedral communications
director Richard Weinberg said this: "The Cathedral itself is an
Episcopal church and it stands to reason that our own clergy serve as Christian
representatives."

The whole to-do points to the
rather bizarre double role the National Cathedral plays in American life. The
symbolic home of the nation's civil religion--ceremonial, inclusive,
nonsectarian--is also the place people in DC and suburban Maryland go if they
want to, say, convert to Episcopalianism, as my wife did a few years ago. Then
as always, my experience with the cathedral and its staff was quite positive.
It's a magnificent church; I was sad to hear of the damages it sustained. And
it's certainly as good a choice as any other single church or synagogue or
mosque for an interfaith prayer vigil.

But for the day's main
event--the secular ceremony headlined by President Obama--the Kennedy Center's
a better fit. If our civil religion were less tangled up with actual religion, the event would have
been planned there from the start.

Comments

Convert to Episcopalianism -- huh?

I've never heard Episcopalians use the expression "convert to Episcopalianism," because we don't think there is such a thing. To join the Episcopal Church, you either get baptized (if you haven't been already), or confirmed (ditto) or "received" (if you were previously baptized and confirmed in another branch of the church).

Yeah, I know that

Yeah, I know that Episcopalians don't typically use that language. But it still seems like the best word to describe switching from one denomination or confessional tradition to another, even within the Christian faith--it's not the perfect word for it but I don't know of a better one.