New York mayor Michael Bloomberg decided not to include any religious clerics among the speakers at the 9/11 memorial service this weekend. Unsurprisingly, this caused some controversy:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has come under attack by some religious and political leaders for not including clergy members as speakers at Sunday’s official ceremony at ground zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in an interview that the planned ceremony only proved that New York was the “epicenter of secularism,” out of step with the rest of America.
“We’re not France,” he said. “Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we are not.”
Congressman Randy Forbes, a Republican representative from Virginia and a co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, sent Mr. Bloomberg a letter on behalf of the caucus members urging him to include prayer in the ceremony.
At the same time, some evangelical Christian leaders said they were outraged that an interfaith prayer service planned by the Washington National Cathedral did not include a Southern Baptist or other evangelical minister.
Happily, Bloomberg stood firm. Good for him!
Alas, the increasingly cartoonish blog of the Chronicle for Higher Education has two posts on this subject. The first comes from Naomi Schaefer Riley, who gave her post the snide title “Mayor Bloomberg’s Memorial to Secularism.” That’s obscene, of course. It was a memorial to the victims of 9/11, not to secularism, and excluding clergy from the speakers list simply acknowledges that it’s a civil and not a religious ceremony. Clergy have no special contribution to make to such an occasion.
Riley’s post does not seem to have any particular point other than to be snide. She writes:
The Mayor of New York decided not to include religious leaders in the ceremony at the September 11 memorial today. He told critics of the decision that he was trying not to force religion on other people. On his weekly radio show, he told New Yorkers:
It’s a civil ceremony. 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 are really quite amazing.
Glad to know he thinks they’re amazing. Was that a compliment? Or is he personally amazed that people believe this stuff? And what does it have to do with whether they’re included. At one point, his aides told the press that he didn’t want to be in the position of having to pick which religious leaders would get to speak. On the radio show, he said, “It isn’t that you can’t pick and choose, you shouldn’t pick and choose. If you want to have a service for your religion, you can have it in your church or in a field, or whatever.”
See what I mean? Of course, Bloomberg was simply making an offhand remark about the impressive diversity of religions in New York City. As he stated clearly, it was the number of religions that was amazing; he said nothing at all about the beliefs themselves. But presenting his remarks accurately would have made it harder for Shafer to be snide and superior. To answer Riley’s questions: Noting the large number of religions represented in New York is neither a compliment nor a slight to any particular religion. Whether or not it is amazing that people believe “this stuff” has no relation to anything Bloomberg said. And it has to do with whether they’re included because singling out certain religions for inclusion in the ceremony would be a slight to all the others who were not, and would add an element of exclusion to a ceremony in which everyone should be able to participate. Riley has to pretend that’s not perfectly obvious.
But Riley isn’t finished:
It’s pretty hard to have a memorial service without mentioning God. But Bloomberg was able to worship the way he wanted–the liberal boomer way. He found room at the ceremony for performances by James Taylor and Paul Simon.
Actually, a lot of us find it preferable to leave God out of our memorial services. That aside, the idea that not wanting to give preference to one religion over another in a civil ceremony makes you a “liberal boomer” deserving of mockery is sadly emblematic of the right-wing mindset.
Jacques Berlinerblau has a better post on this subject. Some of the post is pretty good. For example:
Bloomberg stared down the Christian Right and clearly took this round. Still, the truth is that secularism (defined in terms of classic mid-century conceptions of walling off Church from State) is mired in an abysmal losing streak.
It’s a rut that encompasses everything from the expansion of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives by Barack Obama, to devastating set backs in the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the religion clauses, to a spreading, decade-long plague of religious pandering in the rhetoric of politicians.
I have been writing about secular issues for nearly 10 years and, save perhaps the Dover “Intelligent Design” case of 2005, I can think of few other positive developments of this magnitude.
Indeed. Go to the original post for relevant links.
Sadly, Berlinerblau, like his fellow Chronicle blogger Michael Ruse, is simply unable to write about religion without finding an excuse to bash the New Atheists. He mostly spoils the post by including this astonishing piece of stupidity:
Not being an angry atheist = results: Mayor Bloomberg’s personal faith convictions are an endless matter of speculation. Yet it is essential to recall that he is not generally perceived as being hostile to religion, In truth, he has cultivated cordial and often friendly relations with many religious groups in New York.
In the atheist community, a heated and often bitter debate rages about etiquette towards believers. Had Mayor Bloomberg been the type of fellow to go all Village Atheist on the faithful, the response on Sunday would have been very different. As a member of the American Humanist Association put it “An atheist goes around with a big sign on his forehead saying ‘Your religion stinks.’ That makes it very hard to accomplish anything.” Amen.
Was anyone recommending that Bloomberg go all “Village Atheist” on the faithful? Has any New Atheist suggested that politicians be deliberately offensive to their religious constituents? What got results here is the fact that New York has a sensible mayor who is in an exceptionally strong position (not running again, independently wealthy, represents a city known for political liberalism) to stand up for this particular principle. Was Bloomberg’s defense of his sensible and courageous position made more difficult because Richard Dawkins wrote a book strongly critical of religion? Of course not. And, as we have recently seen, anti-religion polemics also get results. Which is why so many of us argue that a variety of approaches is necessary. There is a place for politicking and bridge-building, but there is also a place for calling out religious foolishness.
But that’s just too subtle for Berlinerblau.