In the days and weeks immediately following September 11, we had a chance to witness a sense of national unity, and even national community, not evident in this country in a long time. In the face of terrible pain and unbelievable loss, there was a flicker of hope. In our experience of oneness as a people, we found strength to believe we would survive and overcome.
Now there is doubt the center will hold. The vision of a unified American people, standing together in all of our great diversity, may be giving way to an insistence on a narrow particularity. So particular, in fact, and so narrow, there is no way it can hold us together.
In a north Houston suburb known as the Woodlands, a community-wide service is being planned to commemorate Sept. 11. Several evangelical churches in the area are planning a worship/memorial service they are calling “9/11: One Voice, The Woodlands Remembers.” The event is slated to be held in a public pavilion situated in the community.
A fairly heated debate has erupted, however, because only evangelical Christians will lead the service. Leaders in the local interfaith community–a group which includes Unitarians, Disciples of Christ, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Christian Scientists, United Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists–have found this decision troubling.
Rabbi James Brandt, of the Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, refuses to refer to the event by its advertised name. “I don’t refer to it as one voice, because that’s a lie. It’s only one voice allowed.”
Rabbi Brandt told an Associated Press reporter that he thought people of all religious affiliations should come together for a national day of mourning. The attack, after all, was against American society, not against the Christian church.
The Rev. Greg Johnson, pastor of the WoodsEdge Community Church and one of the organizers of the evangelical commemoration, has said all churches in the community are welcome to participate as long as they recognize the focus on belief in Jesus Christ.
“Our intent was not to say there is not a place for them, but we do stand on certain values and principles that define us as churches. I don’t believe that’s being exclusionary; that’s just our principles and values,” Rev. Johnson said.
The Rev. Johnson believes the United States is a Christian nation. “We just hold to the view that our future is in Christ,” he said. “I believe this is what our country was founded on.”
Will this be the enduring legacy of Sept. 11–that our faith communities will be pitched against each other in a contest to see who speaks for God in America?
There are profound resources for social healing in the faith traditions of our nation. Faith groups, working in concert with one another, have the potential to bring people together around our common need for comfort and hope.
But if one faith group claims to be America’s only legitimate faith, and insists on priority over all other faiths, there will be no unity. And the wound inflicted by our enemies will fester as our faithless discord prevents us from finding the common ground of a gracious healing.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala. He also writes a weekly religion column, “Faith Matters,” for the Birmingham Post-Herald.