Ever since the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, Americans of faith have indeed been stirred -- to
relentless, sacrificial action. Rarely in the nation's history have
religious communities mobilized with such unity of purpose to help
their needy neighbors. And even more rarely have America's
political leaders shown such good judgment in promoting their civic
Almost as soon as the Twin Towers erupted in flames, nearby
churches and charities were transformed into safe havens, shelters
and sources of food and medicine. The Bowery Mission, a mile from
ground zero, came to the aid of about 3,000 people seeking refuge.
St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village cared for more than 300
of the injured. The Chassidic Jewish Community in Brooklyn set up
refreshment tables at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to help those
fleeing on foot.
Religious organizations -- many with government support -- have
mobilized thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in
resources to supplement relief efforts. Glad Tidings Tabernacle in
New York is raising money for the families of flight attendants
killed in all four plane crashes and creating a payroll fund for
those who've lost their jobs. Working closely with the Red Cross,
the church has become a clearinghouse of supplies for firefighters
and relief workers. "We've got volunteers everywhere, and help from
the churches in the area," says coordinator David Cushworth.
Within a week of the attack, the Salvation Army collected more
than $20 million to assist victims and their families. World
Vision, an international relief organization, is working with a
network of more than 1,700 churches in the New York area, offering
everything from clothing to crisis counseling. Convoy of Hope,
based in Springfield, Mo., has shipped some 120 tons of food and
other supplies to sites in Washington and New York, with more on
Critics of the president's faith-based agenda claim that
religious charities discriminate against needy people or bully them
into religious programs. The reality is that America's Good
Samaritans are unconditionally helping their neighbors, regardless
of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. At the same time, public
officials are eagerly accommodating the demand for church services
and prayer vigils -- such as the interfaith prayer meeting at
Yankee Stadium -- without a murmur from civil libertarian
There have been a handful of attacks against American Muslims,
but ministers are acting decisively to diffuse potentially tense
situations. The Brooklyn Quakers are walking Arab and Muslim
children to school every morning. Numerous American Muslim
organizations have unambiguously condemned the attacks and called
on fellow believers to offer help.
It's true that some religious leaders have used the
tragedy to air their personal bigotries. Evangelist Jerry Falwell,
for example, told a TV audience that homosexual and abortion-rights
activists had incited God's anger against America and that the
nation is getting "probably what we deserve." He later apologized
for remarks that "seemed harsh and ill-timed."
But as President Bush has made clear, there's no suitable time
for such invective. By deploring religiously motivated
discrimination and encouraging the best religious impulses of the
American people, he is displaying a quality of statesmanship that
has disarmed some of his fiercest critics.
The president called for a national day of prayer and spoke
movingly of the nation's "kinship of grief." He invited city and
community leaders to the White House to praise their relief and
rescue work. And he has stood repeatedly with Islamic leaders to
condemn acts of hate against American Muslims, asking all to "pray
for healing and for the strength to serve and encourage one another
in hope and faith."
At moments of national crisis, America's religious communities
have performed exactly this role -- from waging the fight for
independence, to coping with the devastation of the Civil War, to
keeping the civil rights movement on a course of non-violence.
During his 1830s visit, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled that in
America -- unlike in his native France -- the spirit of religion
and the spirit of freedom "were intimately united and that they
reigned in common."
Some may believe America can face this season of testing without
the bond of faith and freedom. But history suggests otherwise, and
our most mature political and religious leaders have shown us we
need not try.
Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion
and a free society at The Heritage Foundation, and a
commentator for National Public Radio.
Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire
When President Bush announced in January his plan to support the work of religious organizations that help the poor, church-state watchdogs began growling. A "recipe for religious bigotry," some charged. Others warned that government funds for charitable groups would "stir religion's fury."
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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