What’s Different Now?

By Darrel Rowland

In some ways it seems everything has changed. But some observers say reaction to 9/11 has been only a blip amid trends that began even before the tragedy.

Flying is a hassle.

We know what IED stands for.

Osama is dead. Saddam, too.

And so are almost 10,000 Americans.

We’ve learned about Kabul and Fallujah the way previous generations found out about Iwo Jima, Panmunjom, and Pleiku.

Scars in our largest city, our capital, a Pennsylvania field. Scars on our psyches, our souls, our kids.

A bold president with a bullhorn promising justice. Members of Congress from both parties, side by side on the Capitol steps, bursting into an impromptu chorus of “God Bless America.” Flags flying from sea to shining sea. Support the troops, even if you’re against the war.

Are we even the same country today?

The sons and daughters of the Restoration Movement have seen those precious moments of togetherness in their homeland crumble over the past 10 years much as it has in their own unity movement.

What to make of the spiritual impact of 9/11?

Two respected professors outside of the Restoration Movement were asked for their assessment.

 

Existing Divides Made Worse

Both say religion actually exacerbated some existing divides in the past decade.

“I get the sense there’s this deep feeling of unease, that Americans feel much more vulnerable,” said John C. Green, senior fellow with the nonprofit Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “I think it has led many Americans to be deeply suspicious of their neighbors . . . it’s being suspicious of people in one’s own denomination who maybe have a little different theology or a little bit different politics. So I think that sense of unease has contributed to some of the political divisions.

“Once you start thinking about religious people as a source of suspicion, it’s not clear where you stop.”

Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, a Baptist college in southwestern Ohio, said while religious conservatives enjoyed a rise in power with Evangelical George W. Bush in the White House, more liberal religious groups saw a resurgence as well.

“In its own way, 9/11 helped create the conditions—a decade of war—that allowed the Christian right’s most significant foe, the Christian left, to establish a foothold,” he said. “Now, please let me be clear, that the Christian left is complex, and does not exist only as a response to 9/11, but the political environment made its growth possible.”

 

Not as Much Impact

Smith said the spiritual and social impact of the post-9/11 wars—at least so far—have been less than after previous conflicts.

“The wars of the past decade have not necessarily been like major wars of the past. There was no draft, war was never declared, and there was little sense of collective, shared sacrifice,” Smith said.

“The demands placed on the population were, at least compared to World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, minimal. I think this is part of why we have not seen a dramatic social and religious shift as a consequence.”

Because Americans—outside of the families of those involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan fighting—were not asked to make much of a collective sacrifice, the country hasn’t seen the typical postwar moral upheaval or religious growth, he said.

“Compare this to severe social changes that accompanied the end of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam in particular. We have seen no revivals (as we did after World War II), nor have we seen social transformation as we did with the flappers after World War I, civil rights activists after World War II and Vietnam, or the student protest movements and the hippies after Vietnam. Granted, it might be early, but I don’t even see the seeds of those sorts of things right now.”

Green said religious groups have increasingly become identified with one political party or the other since 9/11.

“Faith-based political alignments, if anything, are intensifying,” he said. “If you look at voting behavior, the political differences between very conservative Evangelicals and nonreligious people is probably stronger even than a few years ago.”

Of course numerous reasons can be cited for the deep divisions within American politics, but tying both sides to religious beliefs makes the standoff worse, Green said.

“I think most analysts would see this as a problematic trend, because it adds kind of an intensity to political conflict that makes it difficult to have compromise,” he said.

 

Ongoing Trends

While some forecasted a U.S. spiritual transformation after the terrorist attacks, Green said the spike in religious activity proved only a short interruption of four long-term trends still going strong in 2011:

• The slow but steady secularization of American society. The country remains the most religious of advanced industrial societies, but the number of nonbelievers is creeping upward.

• Ethnic and religious diversity continues to expand, which means “there are more potential sources of conflict.” More Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are showing up in religion surveys. Americans have certainly learned more about Islam in the past 10 years, although that knowledge hasn’t exactly softened the sentiments of many Christians.

• A steady growth of nontraditional religions, such as Scientology or syncretism. Many people now claim to be merely “spiritual.”

• In contrast to the other trends, a slow but steady revival of religious orthodoxy in some circles, mostly with theologically conservative Evangelicals, but also among some Catholic groups and orthodox Jews.

 

Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.

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