From the Worldwide Faith News archives

2001: A Religious Odyssey

Date 18 Dec 2001 16:09:32 -0500

Note #6984 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


2001: A Religious Odyssey

by Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON - Last January, on a raw and dreary Inauguration Day in the
nation's capital, America's 43rd president sketched out his vision of a
religiously inclusive America.

"Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their
humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws,"
said President George W. Bush, a conservative Christian who promised to
welcome religious groups as Washington's partner.

Never before had a president mentioned Muslims in his inaugural address, and
Muslim groups were delighted with their new place at the table. One Muslim
official said the country's Muslims had finally come of age. "We'll just
have to wait and see what develops," he said.

But what developed on a picture-perfect morning eight months later was not
what either Bush or the Muslims had in mind, when bands of Islamic
extremists hijacked four airplanes and slammed them into the World Trade
Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11.

Suddenly, the nation was at war and thousands were dead. In the days and
hours after the devastating attacks, Arabs and Muslims were public enemy No.
1. Mosques were vandalized, women in veils harassed and Sikhs mistaken for
Muslims were assaulted. Only when the anger subsided did Muslims slowly come
out of hiding and into the spotlight.

The sudden emergence of the American Muslim community and global Islam is
perhaps the biggest religion story of 2001, a year when the sacred and the
secular collided head-on in the public square.

"The year 2001 proved that we can't understand our nation or our world
without understanding religion," said Melissa Rogers, executive director of
the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

 From ground zero to the White House, from research labs to the Middle East,
lives of believers and the public agenda of nations. The year also
hands of zealots, its comforting balm in the hearts of the faithful.
religion continued its march across the headlines, influencing the private
highlighted religion's seeming contradictions - its power to destroy in the

More than anything, Sept. 11 demonstrated the tremendous pull of religion in
public and private life - and the spiritual and political challenges posed
by fanatics who act in the name of God. Attorney Carl Gell seemed to sum up
the national mood as he exited a Sept. 12 prayer service at St. Matthew's
Cathedral in downtown Washington. "Your faith either gets stronger, or it
gets weaker after something like this," Gell said. "No one stays the same."

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Muslims struggled to reclaim their faith from
extremists. Copies of the Quran flew off bookstore shelves and interfaith
services sprouted around the country. A renewed interest in spirituality and
faith - including Islam -flourished around kitchen tables and in sanctuaries
across the country.

A recent poll by the Pew Forum shows modest gains in favorability for
Muslims. Between March and November, ratings for U.S. Muslims rose from 45
percent to 59 percent. After the attacks, Muslims were no longer the unknown
people "over there" but the now?familiar people who share offices, schools
and neighborhoods.

"Suddenly, it seems everyone is taking a crash course in understanding
Islam," Rogers said.

Islam wasn't the only faith to be jolted by Sept. 11.  Jewish groups,
already dismayed by the ongoing violence in Israel, fended off accusations
that U.S. support for Israel had caused the attacks.

Christians, including Bush, distanced themselves from comments made by
evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that God allowed the attacks
because Americans had embraced abortion, homosexuality and pagans. Rogers'
survey showed 73 percent of Americans "totally disagree" with Robertson and
Falwell, who later said his remarks were "uncalled for at the time."

The course of events also highlighted the promises and perils of interfaith
relations. There were bright spots, like when Jewish and Christian women
shopped with fearful Muslim women, and when the American Jewish Committee
gave $10,000 to help rebuild a small Greek Orthodox Church destroyed in the

There were also hot spots, seen in the widening gulf between several
Protestant denominations and the Jewish community over Israel's treatment of
the Palestinians, and the controversial call by the president of the
Southern Baptist Convention for the conversion of Muslims at the end of the
holy month of Ramadan.

Throughout the conflict, religious leaders wrestled with how to respond to
terrorism and impending military strikes. Most were cautiously supportive of
the new war. In a landmark statement, Catholic bishops drew on centuries of
Just War theory to affirm the country's "moral right and a grave
responsibility to defend the common good against mass terrorism."

Obviously, there was a world before Sept. 11, even though it may be hard to
recall. Much of the year was consumed by the president's controversial plan
to funnel federal money to faith-based groups providing social services. The
plan passed the House in July, but it remains stalled in the Senate over
concerns about possible federally funded discrimination. John DiIulio,
Bush's high-profile faith-based cheerleader, left the White House late this
summer while the bill floundered.

Conceding an uphill fight against public opinion, some religious groups
pleaded with Bush to halt the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy
McVeigh. Bush refused and McVeigh died on June 11.

The new president also wrestled with embryonic stem-cell research, a
promising yet controversial procedure that could yield cures for a number of
diseases. Pope John Paul II lectured Bush on the research and "other related
evils," but Bush agreed in August to allow research only on stem-cell
colonies that already existed. In November, much of the religious world
recoiled at the news that a Massachusetts company claimed it had
successfully cloned human embryos, though the research proved ultimately

In February, the pope commissioned a new class of 44 cardinals, the elite
princes of the church who will eventually help elect John Paul's successor.
Among the U.S. cardinals were Theodore McCarrick of Washington, Edward Egan
of New York and Avery Dulles, a theologian at Fordham University.

In spite of his 81 years, the frail pontiff continued his globe?trotting -
visiting Greece, Syria, Malta, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia to seek peace
with estranged Orthodox churches. Entering his 24th year as pope, John Paul
also put down a scandal by convincing an African archbishop, Emmanuel
Milingo, to leave the Korean woman he married in a Unification Church
ceremony and return to the celibate priesthood.

Around the world, perilous conditions highlighted the dangers of missionary
work. In May, the Peruvian air force shot down a small plane carrying a
missionary family - Jim Bowers and his son survived the crash, while his
wife, Roni, and infant daughter did not. Two Texas women, Dayna Curry and
Heather Mercer, held by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for months were
finally released in November, burning their head coverings so U.S. military
rescue crews could find them in the desert darkness.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made history in November by electing
its first African-American president. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville,
IL, said he hopes his three-year term will help African-Americans who have
become "lukewarm" in their faith to return to the Catholic Church. The
Unitarian Universalist Association also elected its first black president,
William Sinkford, in June.

Evangelical circles were captivated by an obscure Old Testament prayer that
became a publishing sensation. The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson topped
best-seller lists for weeks, drawing fans to its promises of divine
blessings for those who simply knew how to ask for them. Despite its
overwhelming popularity, only 21 percent of "born-again" Christians had
heard of the book, compared to 71 percent who knew Harry Potter, according
to one poll.

For many, one world ended on Sept. 11, and an uncertain one dawned amid the
smoke and fear on Sept. 12. Priorities were reassessed, relationships
evaluated, pews revisited. Much of what seemed so important before, suddenly
wasn't. The Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the badly divided Presbyterian
Church (USA), sensed the change.

"Our internal quarrels," Rogers said, "seem trivial in light of these awful
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