Nine years (and a few weeks) have now passed since the events of 9/11, and as Religion in America blogger Paul Matzko noted on the attacks’ ninth anniversary earlier this month, the religious overtones of how Americans remember that day are palpable:
9/11 is a holy-day, Ground Zero sacred ground, and those who lost their lives are martyrs. But objects or events are considered sacred only within the context of religious understanding. That which is sacred (and which is profane, e.g. the Cordoba House) is defined by a common religion. There is no traditional religion that all Americans share. We are Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, humanists, universalists, and fundamentalists. But there is one religion that we all have in common, a civil religion.
The concept of the civil religion, first penned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau but cemented in the American context by Robert Bellah, explains the place September 11th holds in our culture. The American civil religion encompasses not only the soaring religious rhetoric evident in presidents like Lincoln, Kennedy, Obama, and others, but also the more secular state expressions of patriotism—one thinks, for instance, of Memorial Day. It is this curious wedding of non-specific religiosity, patriotism, and images of sacrifice that makes 9/11 such a pivotal event, both religiously and politically. As President Obama said at this year’s anniversary gathering,
They [terrorists] may seek to strike fear in us, but they are no match for our resilience. We do not succumb to fear, nor will we squander the optimism that has always defined us as a people. On a day when others sought to destroy, we have chosen to build, with a National Day of Service and Remembrance that summons the inherent goodness of the American People.
Matzko was right when he noted that September 11 “has become symbolic of what it means to be American.” Yet, as has always been the case, the exact “meaning” of that symbol is forever up to interpretation.
To jump directly to President Obama’s remarks from this year’s 9/11 ceremony at the Pentagon, click here. (This link can also be found in the body of Matzko’s post.)