Friday, September 09, 2011

Bloomberg Bravely Excludes Clergy From 9/11 Memorial Service

Like most New Yorkers, I have mixed feelings about Mayor Bloomberg. I deplore his tendency to switch parties whenever it's politically convenient, and his overturning of term limits. I've liked some of the changes he's made to the city (the Broadway promenade is wonderful, and far more consistent with the city's traditions than some critics have claimed), and disliked others (non-smokers would be less annoyed with smokers if smokers had places to smoke). Like President Obama, Bloomberg always benefits from comparisons with his predecessor. But unlike Obama, Bloomberg is now above pandering. His independence sometimes allows him to make brave, intelligent choices that few other American politicians, if any, would dream of.

Even so, I was astonished and delighted to learn that Bloomberg was excluding clergy from the 9/11 memorial services this weekend. The astonishment itself says something about our twisted culture. Religion, whatever you might think of it, has no rightful place in the official business of our cities, states, and nation. But in flagrant violation of both the Constitution and rational thought, our currency says "in god we trust" (while neglecting to proclaim credence in any other fictional characters); Congressional sessions begin with prayers; and before taking an oath, we're asked to place our hands on that ridiculous book. So instances of genuine separation of church and state are always striking.

But 9/11 makes this a special case. The 9/11 attacks, as I've said here many times, were the ultimate faith-based initiative -- a successful attempt, by deeply religious, god-loving, god-fearing men, to kill people they saw as insufficiently pious. They were doing god's work, acting in accordance with the mandates of their religion; the Koran, like the Torah and the Bible, explicitly encourages and celebrates the slaughter of infidels. Islam did not attack a Christian nation. Religion attacked a secular one.

And that's why, in some 9/11 memorial events, the inclusion of religious dogma has stung a little more painfully than usual. Taking an oath on the Bible can be attributed to the fact that longstanding traditions are hard to shake. But 9/11 is new, and it happened because of religion, and there is no way to move forward from the events of that awful morning until we recognize that god is just another word for war.

Of course, religious zealots have been quick to condemn the mayor's decision. Writing for the conservative website Free Republic, Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt calls it "a sad display of anti-Christian censorship." How revealing it is that to Mr. Klingenschmitt, the exclusion of religion in general is "anti-Christian." That's how he really feels. Like many religious people, even the sweetest and best-intentioned, Klingenschmitt can't think outside the conviction that his religion is the one true faith. He thinks his coreligionists are virtuous and will be rewarded, and that everyone else faces, and deserves, eternal suffering. If Klingenschmitt had called it "a sad display of anti-religious censorship," he would still be wrong, but his choice of words reveals him as a bigot.

Klingenschmitt goes on to quote Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association: "What's a memorial service if you are going to leave god out of it completely?" The answer: An emotionally honest and intellectually responsible occasion. Klingenschmitt's article is followed by an unintentionally hilarious passage which is headlined "A PRAYER TO ALMIGHTY GOD and A PETITION TO NYC MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG," and which begins, "Dear Sirs." You'd think a chaplain would have addressed god and simply CCed Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, over at, Deacon Keith Fournier says, "We will not be 'allowed' to pray at Ground Zero if the Mayor of New York has his way." In fact, people who gather at the World Trade Center site, or anywhere, on September 11 or anytime, are welcome to pretend to communicate with the imaginary friend of their choice. There will simply be no religious element in the official service. As Bloomberg press secretary Stu Loeser told the New York Times, the memorial service will include six moments of silence, and "we think most people use those moments of silence for reflection and prayer."

The mayor and his administration have admirably stood by their decision, despite predictable outcry from dimly-lit corners. "It's a civil ceremony," Bloomberg has said. "There are plenty of opportunities for people to have their religious ceremonies. Some people don't want to go to a religious ceremony with another religion. And the number of different religions in this city [is] really quite amazing." This is a wise and fair judgment, one I only wish the United States Congress were capable of making. A while back, some Bloomberg aides said that clergy was being excluded because there's no fair way to decide who gets to speak and who doesn't -- a cop-out which the administration has rightly retracted. "It isn't that you can't pick and choose," Bloomberg said last week. "If you want to have a service for your religion, you can have it in your church or in a field, or whatever."

From: Noah Diamond
Subject: Thank you

Mr. Loeser,

I am writing to thank the Bloomberg administration for its wise and courageous decision to exclude clergy from the 9/11 memorial service this weekend. I know that some are displeased with this choice, and I'm sure your office is hearing plenty from them. But there are many other New Yorkers who see that the inclusion of religious dogma in a 9/11 memorial is not only inappropriate, but a bitter insult to those who perished at the hands of religious extremists.

My sincere gratitude to you, to the mayor, and to the administration, for a brave decision worthy of the world's greatest city.

Noah Diamond