Two religious responses from the days immediately following the attacks of 9/11 demonstrate how religion has been both a divisive and unifying force in America over the last ten years.
The first was from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who assigned blame for the attacks to God who, they explained, was angry at America because of Gays, Feminists and the ACLU, among others. While fires still smoldered at Ground Zero, Falwell and company were ironically fanning the flames of discord and division by blaming God and liberals instead of religious extremism.
The second response was different. As soon as reports made clear that the terrorists claimed allegiance to the fundamentalist Islam of Osama bin Laden, many feared violence might be directed toward the American Muslim population. Yet in the days after 9/11, reports came from all across the country that Christians, Jews, and other people of faith had called local mosques to offer support and solidarity. Instead of turning against Muslims, the religious community rallied for their fellow Americans of a different faith tradition.
These two examples show the simultaneous yet divergent directions that religious practice and thought has taken in America in the last ten years. 9/11 made it clear that religion, which had been ignored in global political calculations and overlooked by the media for decades, was still a force, and perhaps the force in people's personal and communal lives.
While many still hold that religion is essentially divisive, since 9/11 it has been clear that religion has been an overwhelmingly positive force to bring people from different backgrounds together within American society.
I use myself as a case in point. Ten years ago I knew basically nothing about Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. I knew a bit about Judaism being from an interfaith background, but even that was minimal. I was an ordained pastor, yet my training had ignored other religious traditions. Ten years later, most seminaries require a working knowledge of other religious traditions to graduate. 9/11 impressed upon religious communities that to be an effective religious leader requires knowing the essential beliefs held by our neighbors of other faiths.
In fact, 9/11 gave me a new sense of my vocation as a pastor. From 2003 to 20011, my ministry consisted of promoting interfaith engagement at Princeton University. I worked with hundreds of students from different religious traditions who demonstrated a deep commitment to being with and learning from people of different religious and ideological backgrounds. Since 9/11, interfaith groups have been formed at colleges and high schools around the country. A new movement of interfaith cooperation is growing that values the uniqueness of individual traditions (increasingly including secular-humanist), while believing that people can and must respect one another across differences of belief. Groups such as Religions for Peace, the Parliament of the World's Religions, Fellowship in Prayer and countless of others continue to bring people of different faiths together both in America and around the world.
Yet there is a sense of urgency that surrounds the mission of these groups. Eboo Patel, a Muslim leader who heads the Interfaith Youth Core acknowledged: "In the twenty-first century, faith can be a bomb of destruction, a barrier of division or a bridge of cooperation." Even while there have been great strides among all faiths towards a more unified pluralistic America, there have been episodic physical attacks against Muslims and Sikhs, and there are many for whom religion provides a platform for proclaiming suspicion and division of people of different faith traditions, most notably Muslims.
Last year's observance of 9/11 was marred by an intentional furor over a proposed Muslim community center at Park 51 even though the Imam was widely known for his interfaith cooperation and his rejection of Islamic extremism. A recent study showed that there is an organized and concerted effort to create a fear of Muslims which had led to anti-sharia (Muslim law) bills being proposed and passed in states where nobody was even proposing that sharia might be instated. While anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be increasing, even after Osama bin Laden was killed; Muslims in America have a general sense of well-being, and are actually more satisfied with the way things are going in this country than the average citizen.
In recent years we have also heard an increasingly loud insistence on the essential Christian (and more recently Judeo-Christian) nature of this country. When the interfaith director of a Hindu Temple was invited to open the Senate in 2007, there were protests against an invocation to a "non-theistic god." And who can forget the mustachioed Florida pastor who decided to make a name for himself by burning a Quran.
Yet even the much publicized proposed Quran burning demonstrated how much America had come together across religious divides. As I wrote in an earlier piece, the Pastor was surprised to find himself completely isolated in his desire to desecrate another tradition's Holy book. Both liberal and conservative religious and political leaders recognized that this was not the kind of America we envisioned, and instead as one people we showed our support for a genuinely pluralistic America.
Perhaps nothing has given me more hope in the productive possibilities of religious people coming together than my experience as the Senior Religion Editor of The Huffington Post. We have over 600 religious leaders and academics from across the religious and ideological spectrum who write for the site. Each of our writers is on the front line against extremist and destructive elements within all of our traditions; and are living examples of the possibility of honestly sharing the wisdom and truth of their own tradition without succumbing to the temptation to violate or denigrate the tradition of their neighbor.
We are all still healing from the wounds of 9/11. Religious communities and leaders must continue along a path that rejects division, violence and hate, and must instead harness all of the wisdom and compassion inspired by the world's great traditions to create a more perfect America and world.