The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on April 24, 2013
Religion and the Boston Marathon

Boston Marathon Bombing Investigation Continues Day After Second Suspect Apprehended
There are events that are so surreal that they almost inevitably evoke religious language. This was certainly the case with the attack on the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, so it is not surprising that such language erupted in its wake. But this particular event makes religious reactions especially appropriate, more so than would be the case with other mass gatherings.
The Boston Marathon has both ancient and more proximate religious roots. Marathon is a town in Greece, the site of a battle in 490 BCE in which a small Athenian force defeated a much larger Persian army. Supposedly a messenger ran all the way to Athens without ever stopping, upon arrival exclaimed “We have won!”, then collapsed. The name “Marathon” was then given to a running competition at the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, intended to reincarnate the ancient festival—a sacred ritual going back to around 700 BCE, dedicated to Zeus, the head of the gods.
More proximately, its reiteration in Boston is held on Patriots Day, a public holiday—indeed a “holy day”—commemorating the battles of Concord and Lexington in 1775 that inaugurated the War of Independence. It is a holiday which embodies the soul of the city of Boston and with it the founding myth of the United States. An attack on it, beyond its horrendous brutality, has the quality of blasphemy.
On April 19, 2013 The Boston Globe provided extensive coverage of the religious ceremonies in the wake of the attack. There was a solemn service at Trinity Episcopal Church on Copley Plaza, right next to the crime scene. No doubt there were other denominational services. But here I want to make some comments on the informal and formal interfaith services, explicit manifestations of the civil religion and its relation to the several denominations.

Soon after the bombings a makeshift memorial was spontaneously put up. A Globe article described it as “an eclectic collection of crosses, candles, teddy bears, medals, running shoes, and hundreds of other personalized items that reflect a common sorrow.” I don’t know when or where this practice originated, but it has occurred on other occasions of shared grief, for example following the death of Princess Diana. There were a few overtly religious messages inserted into the display, but the memorial as a whole had a clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character. People were coming and going, stood quietly in an attitude of prayer, wrote messages. A six-year old girl laboriously wrote a message saying “We love you so much!”. That was the major theme—expressions of affection for the victims. Then there were affirmations of resolve against violence, and expressions of the intent to run again in next year’s Marathon. Sacral ritual or not, no denominationally specific religion was visible here.
The official memorial service took place three days after the attack, at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross. It was attended by President Obama and other top officials. Obama denounced the evil of the murderous deed, promised to bring the perpetrators to justice (the suspected bombers were still at large), and expressed his special affection for Boston. This is the lesson he took from the event: “That’s what you taught us, Boston. That’s what you reminded us—to push on, to persevere. To not grow weary. To not get faint. Even when it hurts. Even when our heart aches.” People in the audience said that they were comforted and inspired by the President’s message. It was by all accounts an effective sermon. But it was a secular sermon, despite its religiously distinctive setting.
The opening address at the Cathedral service was delivered by the Reverend Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the following passage: “How can God allow bad things to happen? Where was God when evil slithered in and planted the horror that exploded our innocence?” She said that she had no answer, and added, “But this is what I know: God is here, in the midst of this sacred gathering and beyond.”
I would not be misunderstood: I have no problem whatever for a minister not knowing “the answer” to the age-old question of theodicy. After all, I co-authored a book with the title In Praise of Doubt—by definition, I think, faith implies an absence of certainty—I don’t have to believe what I know. But that is not the point here. The point is this: The faith that Walker represents does have an answer, centered on the redemptive process inaugurated by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, culminating on that Day of Judgment when all evil will finally be punished. But what is more: She could not (whether in tones of certainty or not) explicate this answer in the context of this service. Once again, I would not be misunderstood: I have no criticism of Walker’s reticence about the Christian faith she is supposed to represent. It would have been inappropriate here for her to come out with overtly Christian (let alone with Protestant or, if such there are, Presbyterian) references.  But it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in this service.
I was not there, but the Globe account does not record any expression of a specific faith. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the much admired Archbishop of Boston (he was mentioned as papabile at the recent Conclave), made no mention of any specifically Catholic “answer” either: “The tragedy… shakes us out of our complacency and indifference and calls us to focus on the task of building a civilization that is based on love, justice, truth and service.” Rabbi Ronne Friedman, who presides over the largest synagogue in Boston quoted a Hasidic source: “The entire world is a narrow bridge, but the important principle is to transcend, somehow, your fear.” An atheist might agree with this. The representative of the American Islamic Congress quoted a passage from the Koran, but that one too could be affirmed by any morally decent person. Needless to say, there are distinctive Jewish and Muslim “answers” to the question of theodicy (beyond the not unimportant point that the question was probably raised explicitly for the first time in  the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Job). In any case, as far as I can tell, this was an event in which anyone, even a very secular person, could feel at home—and, most importantly, experience a strong sense of solidarity with the community assaulted by an obscene act of violence. This was the experience reported by all the participants who spoke about the service.
Grace Davie, a British sociologist, has written about the way in which established churches, in moments of collective grief, become the official mourners of the nation, even though only a minority of citizens worship in their services. The Church of England played this role at the funeral of Princess Diana, as did the Lutheran Church of Sweden (it has recently been disestablished) when the cruise ship “Estonia” sank in the Baltic Sea and a large number of Swedish tourists perished. The United States of course has no state church, but all the denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.
This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.
The American case is different from other cases where religious pluralism and religious freedom coincide. Yet it is similar in the need for a common discourse not identified with any specific denomination. This should not trouble people of faith, unless they are unwilling to recognize the right of other faiths to exist in the same society. The Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was one of the founders of modern international law. He insisted that such law was to be a rational enterprise, which could be agreed upon by states with widely different religions. In his remarkable phrase, international law should be formulated etsi Deus non daretur” – “as if God did not exist”. Grotius was anything but an atheist. He was a pious man, belonging to the Arminian branch of the Dutch Reformation.  I would call it its more humane branch, as against the grim Calvinism that dominated in the Netherlands for a while. (Indeed the Calvinist authorities then in charge forced Grotius into exile, in England and in Germany.) It seems to me that his formula is relevant to church/state issues today.
[Photo courtesy Getty Images]

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I agree with Dr. Berger that the pronouncements from official memorial service for the victims of the Boston mass bombings were reflections of American civic religion. The brands of civic religion expressed, however, were not the “cut flower culture” of “the American Way of Life” once described by sociologist-theologian Will Herberg in his book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” in the 1950’s. Rather, I believe the pronouncements made at the official service for the Boston bombings reflected “plausibility structures” (Berger’s term) that have often reduced civic religion to therapy, social activism, ethics, agnosticism, or all four.

    I found the therapeutic gospel to be expressed in Rabbi Friedman’s: “the important thing is to transcend, somehow, your fear.” To secularized Jews, psychoanalysis has replaced transcendent religion to the point that the only thing to transcend is not death, suffering, or evil but your superego.

    The social activist reduction of civic religion can be found in Pres. Obama’s: “bring the perpetrators to social and legal justice.” This is unsurprising for someone like Obama who was a long-time ideological acolyte for the Liberation Theology of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As Berger says in his book Questions of Faith: “ But even though Obama was the most secular of all the speakers at the official service he at least reportedly used the word “evil.”

    The moralistic reduction is found in Cardinal O’Malley’s call to social work: “love, justice, truth, and service.” I imagine in some way the Tsarnaev brothers would justify their actions on the grounds of “truth and justice” also. As Berger might say: one man’s legitimation for civil rights can also be used to legitimate another man’s civil wrongs.

    The agnostic reduction I heard in Berger’s recap of the speaker’s comments came from Presbyterian minister Liz Walker: “we don’t know why God allows bad things to happen but God is here in this place and in our hearts.” There is a place for faithful agnosticism based on doubt. “We don’t know why people commit such acts” can be a good starting point but does not replace transcendent faith. God cannot be fully apprehended through language as Rudolph Otto pointed out in his book “The Idea of the Holy.”

    Borrowing Berger’s words from his book “Questions of Faith,” I found all these pronouncements in the public square that did not consider the questions of death and evil to be “uninteresting.”

    Berger outlined five “signals of immanent transcendence” for civic discourse in his book “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural” that may be a helpful antidote. In that book Berger discussed how the language of religious transcendence had been reduced to a rumor. He suggested five signals of transcendence for civic discourse in the public square:

    Order: The Boston bombings remind us that without social order life becomes meaningless, homeless, loveless, malevolent, and accustomed with evil and suffering.

    Hope: The propensity to hope in the face of powerlessness to combat seemingly individualized acts of terrorism is an example of transcendence. While the acts of terrorists may appear to be individual and not involving a broad conspiracy, they are nonetheless bred from particular ideologies and social locations, the culture of academia, and virtual electronic networks that seem to replace terrorist cells or formal institutions (see Anton Zijderveld, The Institutional Imperative: The interface of Institutions and Networks”). Academia is a poor replacement for older ethnic and religious mediating institutions of cultural assimilation.

    Play: As Berger points out, the Marathon itself is a form of play that transcends our physical limitations and focuses on the “race of life” and even possibly life after death of ancient war battles.

    Damnation: Murdering innocent people and children is a damnable act that can’t be reduced to moral relativism; combatting it with moral good works; or fighting for social equality for the self-alienated. We don’t know what “good works” are because in most cases what is intended by good works results in worse unintended pain and suffering (witness the religious activism for affordable housing resulting in the Mortgage Bubble). If there is a “rumor of angels” there also is a “rumor of demons or at least demonic acts.”

    I believe Berger’s five “signals of transcendence” meet his criteria of assuming “God did not exist” but pointing to something immanently transcendent.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger writes that “it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in [the Boston] service.” Following Grace Davie’s suggestion that, in times of collective grief, established churches may become the official
    mourners of the nation, he notes that, in America, “all the [unestablished] denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.” And, by and large, Berger regards this arrangement as very successful.

    Lusvardi seems to regard it as somewhat less successful. I think he is correct in noting that civil religion ain’t what it used to be. The transcendent dimension of civil religion has been replaced with “therapy, social activism, ethics, agnosticism, or all
    four.” In his 1966 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah described civil religion as “a genuine
    apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in . . . or revealed through the experience of the American people.” And he added, “’God’ has clearly been a central symbol in the civil religion from the beginning and remains so today. This symbol is just as central to the civil religion as it is to Judaism or Christianity.” Presidents have always referred to God (and, Bellah argues, it was not simply meaningless window-dressing). “But could we have an agnostic president? Could a man with
    conscientious scruples about using the word ‘God’ the way Kennedy and Johnson have used it be elected chief magistrate of our country”? If Obama is not going to invoke God at the Boston services, when will he—only when warning against those who cling to God and guns?

    Here is how a recent introductory sociology text (John Macionis) defines civil religion: “a quasi-religious loyalty binding individuals in a basically secular society.” To realize how little religion there is in this “quasi-religion,” consider Macionis’ explication: “Civil religion involves a range of rituals, from standing to sing the national anthem at sporting
    events to waving the flag at public parades. At all such events, the U. S. flag serves as a sacred symbol of our national identity.”

    But if Bellah’s civil religion has been secularized, why would Berger acquiesce in an arrangement that liquidates the transcendent. How could he report on
    Obama’s “inspiring” sermon without laughing out loud? Recall Berger’s answer to the question why
    there are no humanist funerals (Jan 10, 2013)—they don’t work. “[Religion] offers a community gathered
    around the message that death is not the final word about an individual life and nothingness not the final destiny of the universe. At any rate this is the message shared by the Abrahamic faiths that came to Newtown. Whether this message is true or not, humanism in the sense of ‘no faith’ cannot offer a plausible alternative.” Not in Newtown; not in Boston.

    Berger describes the spontaneous (as opposed to official) memorial—with its crosses, candles, teddy bears, and running shoes—where people stood in a prayerful attitude—as having a “clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character.” THIS “quasi-sacral” event, however, unlike Macionis’ quasi-religious flag-waving, was NOT “basically secular.” The people
    were quite able to find signals of transcendence everywhere—even in Obama’s sermon! (Let me save Lusvardi the trouble of adding the omitted fifth signal of transcendence—humor.) In other words, civil religion, even when it is appropriated by secular humanists, cannot be secularized, because signals of
    transcendence guarantee the return of the repressed.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The Boston Marathon bombings eerily bring to mind bombings of a street parade by two teenage terrorists who trained in Belgrade, Serbia some 99 years ago. The parade brought together Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim participants in a territory recently annexed by a larger state on a policy of irredentism (annexation on grounds of common ethnicity or history). “National Defense,” an offshoot of the Black Hand, trained the bombers underground on how to throw hand made bombs. They also acquired a Browning semi-automatic pistol.

    What was in vogue at that time was the assassination of state leaders, not innocent parade bystanders (Boston), school children (Newtown, Conn.), or theatergoers (Aurora, Colorado). There were no signs or messages of religious, ethnic, or territorial conflict brought into the public square of the parade. To the contrary, the parade watchers brought large portraits of those venerated in the parade.

    The event I’m describing was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne of Austria and his wife in an open car in Sarajevo, Serbia by 18-year old Gavrilo Princip. His co-conspirator was 19 year-old Nedjelko Chabrinovitch, among others. They plotted their murder in a coffeehouse in Belgrade, Serbia 99-years ago.

    It is interesting to note that the surname of the Boston bombers -– Tsarnaev – brings to mind a rough street English translation of “naïve Czars” or “young punk gangsters.”

    As described in historian Sean McMeekin’s wonderful new book – “July 1914″ – this assassination set off a series of events that was capitalized on for political purposes resulting in World War I. Austria’s foreign minister had tricked his Russian counterpart in an agreed quid pro quo between the nations. The Russian ambassador was humiliated and tried to live down a resulting reputation of cowardice. He eventually exacted revenge against Austria when he reappeared as the Russian ambassador to France. Later he helped form a coalition of France and Russia that triggered a world war.

    Not one foreign royal figurehead or statesman came to Vienna for the funeral of Ferdinand, including even the failure of Austrian Emperor and King Franz Joseph I to attend, for fear of fanning the flames of ethnic or religious violence in the public square. Foreign ambassadors all sent condolences except for Russia. Emperor Franz Josef I had refused to modernize the ancient Austrian Empire and thus there was no “secular” vocabulary to bring into the public square (at least as McMeekin describes it).

    McMeekin points out there were calls to go to war against Serbia just as the ancient Roman Cato the Elder ended all his speeches before the Roman Senate with: “Carthage must be destroyed.” There are no calls for Chechnyans to be mass deported or revenge to be exacted, in part due to America’s moderated Civlc Religion, which Prof. Berger has aptly pointed out.

    (Note to Dr. Gary Novak: Berger’s fifth Signal of Transcendence– humor — which I negligently omitted in my first comment above, brings to mind the saying: “man plans, God laughs.”

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added at the end of my second comment with regard to humor as a signal of transcendence: it was widely reported that Boston police had announced to the Marathon crowd that there would be a simulated bombing for training purposes before the actual bombs went off. Call this a signal of dark humor (“man plans, God laughs”) that reminds humanity of its official follies and the adolescent puerility of the perpetrators that they would be undiscovered.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    NOTE TO COMMENTERS: I have learned that my comments have to be pre-formatted or otherwise they will appear with gaps between sentences or within sentences that are disjointed. Sometimes parts of sentences are dropped. One way to remedy this is to cut and paste your comment into an email and send it to yourself first. Then open up the self-mailed email and copy and paste it again for posting on The American Interest. Then it will appear intact because it has been pre-formatted.

    • Gary Novak

      Thanks for the tip. (By the way, I
      don’t have a PhD. It took me thirty years of professional studenthood to get an
      M. A.)