Did 9/11 touch many souls?

911DevilAs you would expect, reporter Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times includes a passing reference to the impact of 9/11 on the spiritual climate in America. I am looking around online to see if other mainstream newsrooms do the same. Please consider this an open thread on the spiritual elements of the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage today. Please let us know what you see -- the bad and, especially, the good.

Here is the passing spiritual reference from Simon's story. I thought it was especially fitting to include this right after the reference to the high percentage of Americans who now believe, or are willing to ponder the possibility, that their own government played a role in planning the attacks. If the devil didn't make the terrorists act, then who did?

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon -- and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed "God Bless America," it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. "Spiritually speaking, it's as if nothing significant ever happened," says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

As you would expect, I waded into this church-attendance myth back in 2001. It was a story that had to be checked out, after editors sent waves of reporters to church on the Sunday after the attacks. But, from the beginning, it sounded like a wave of anecdotes, to me.

Cross 911poemFirst you went to church. Then editors wanted the "Where Was God?" story covered. Then there were the stories and polls declaring that one form of absolute truth claim was just as evil as another.

Still, I have to admit I was surprised that the attacks had little or no impact at all. I would not have been surprised if they had had a negative impact on organized religion. But no impact? Here is the column I wrote at the time:

Sometimes the number is 38 percent and sometimes it's something like 41.

For decades, Gallup Poll researchers have asked people if they attended worship services in the previous week. On rare occasions the percentage may soar to 48. It has been known to dip to 35. But that's about it. There are seasonal ripples in the pews, but few big waves.

Then came the events of Sept. 11.

"Everybody started hearing all kinds of things from people all over the country," said Mike Vlach of Church Initiative, based in Wake Forest, N.C. This evangelical support network ... has about 5,000 churches on its mailing list.

"It seemed like we were talking about sizable changes in the spiritual landscape of the country. ... We immediately started calling churches and asking, 'What are you seeing out there? What are people asking? What are you doing in response?'"

Media reports joined the chorus, citing this return to faith as a ray of light in the darkness. Then the late September Gallup Poll ... came out and the number was 47 percent, up from 41 in May. That was a rise, but not shockingly higher than the normal post-summer lift.

Vlach kept placing his calls and the news was good. Pastors said they were seeing larger crowds, including many inquisitive visitors. The atmosphere of uncertainty was lingering. "People have a heightened sense of alertness," said a pastor in Indianapolis. A Chicago-area contact reported: "We have noticed a heightened desire in people to put their spiritual lives in order."

The anecdotes were wonderful, but Vlach said he could not find strong evidence of lasting impact. Most church leaders were comforting their anxious flocks and welcoming any visitors who happened to walk in on their own. But few churches had tried to reach out to the un-churched.

Pastors preached one or two sermons linked to Sept. 11 and, perhaps, organized a memorial service. But that was about it, said Vlach. Few churches made sustained attempts to talk about life and death, heaven and hell, sin and repentance.

"I'm not sure that many churches even saw this as an opportunity to deal with these kinds of issues," he said. "I'm not sure many church leaders are trained to think like that."

By mid-November, the Gallup number was back to 42 percent.

Yes, 74 percent of Americans said they were praying more than usual, 70 percent said they had wept and 77 percent said they were being affectionate with loved ones. As the Gallup team said, Americans were seeking "spiritual solace." But the data suggested that they were flying solo.

The evangelical market analysts at the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org) did a wave of national polling starting in late October, looking for statistical signs of revival. They found that worship statistics were following familiar patterns. Participation in prayer circles and Bible study groups "remained static." Even among born-again Christians, they found a slight decrease in the number of believers who were sharing their faith with non-believers.

"After the attack," said George Barna, "millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention."

These seekers found comfort, but were not motivated to change their beliefs and lifestyles. The most stunning statistic was that the percentage of Americans saying they believe in "moral truths or principles that are absolute," meaning truths that don't change with the circumstances, actually declined -- from 38 to 22 percent. In fact, only 32 percent of born-again Christians said they still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

"Our assessment," said Barna, "is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner." The Sept. 11th tragedy offered congregations a unique chance to "be the healing and transforming presence of God in people's lives, but that ... has now come and gone, with little to show for it."

It seems that the larger story is the growth of radical individualism, with a secondary trend in which very traditional forms of religious faith survive and even grow among those who are counter-cultural. Of course, few things are harder for journalists to cover than trends that roll along at the level of individual choices that are not linked to movements and institutions. How do you cover an anti-movement movement?

Please help us watch the coverage today. Please use the comments pages to pass along headlines and URLs. Thank you.

Update 1: If you want the straight existentialist angle, which is a kind of spiritual viewpoint, check out this feature in today's Style section (of course) in the Washington Post. Most haunting detail? The mourning mother's desire to buy a Leatherman utility knife, just to know what it feels like in her hand. For a strange suburban form of existentialism, click here. How did the Post find the totally faith-free street?

Update 2: Back to the Los Angeles Times for a really cynical spin. Why face the reality of 9/11? Why change, when you can change the channel? That's entertainment.

Update 3: As you would expect, the New York Times has produced another massive update on its stunning package of mini-portraits of those who have died. I have been reading through some of them at random and, I must say, they are amazingly faith free. Have I just had bad luck? Anyone else want to help me search?

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