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President Obama prepares to speak during a memorial service for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012.
The interfaith service held to heal the wounds of tragedy in Newtown, Conn., demonstrated America’s religious exceptionalism. The nationally televised event left little doubt that religious differences are imprinted in this country’s culture in ways found few other parts of the globe. While the passage of time will unfold the effect the service had on people’s psychology, Newtown’s social interactions, and the politics of gun ownership, the theology of the moment deserves immediate comment.
This event exhibited a welcomed interdenominationalism because the moment celebrated — rather than ignored — the differences in faith, prayer and ritual. The program integrated different faiths into a coherent panoply of the varieties of American religious experience. The service also let nonbelievers join in the search for solace, if not in faith, at least in solidarity with a virtuous public culture.
Members of the Sikh community hold a candlelight vigil outside Newtown High School before an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama on Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.
The frequent pauses allowed a personalized internalization of each prayer, allowing it to be heard in the faith language of each of the listeners – including a vast television audience with fans watching Sunday night football. A chant from a rabbi was followed by a Methodist prayer. A Muslim imam delivered his message from the Koran before cupping his hands in suppliance as a Christian woman minister prayed for first responders. A Lutheran minister addressed God under various names after a moving comparison of the children as “birds escaping a moral cage” from the inspiration of the Baha’i faith.
Most of us have seen an interfaith service with a parade of clergy to mark special days like Thanksgiving. What gave this event a special dimension was its immediacy after a shocking tragedy. This was not a case of trying to make people aware of the need for prayer: this was response to an existential and aching need for consolation at a time of overwhelming grief. The event was not ritual but heartfelt prayer seamlessly sewn into the texture of a public event.
I am convinced that this religious culture is special to the United States. While it may be colored by historical and regional roles of majority and minority religions, America has a distinct appreciation for faith expression in the civic sphere. In this case, the New England Congregationalist religious culture of unadorned egalitarianism was evident in the choice of location. The service was held in the high school auditorium rather than in a denominationally specific church building where stained glass windows might have carried a distraction. Clergy and politicians sat among the people before ascending to the podium. Mirroring the faith setting, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and President Obama based their speeches on theological premise, not political fodder.
The governor organized his remarks around a doctrinal definition of faith as a gift of God. Malloy respected each believer for upholding distinctive aspects of God’s goodness.
The president’s remarks echoed what David Brooks has identified as Niebuhrian Christian realism which is recognition that no single law will completely eliminate evil, but that impossibility is not an excuse for inaction. The president voiced a sentiment not unlike the motto of the Catholic Christophers movement: “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
Questioning why God allows innocent children to die spans millennia, referenced in Matthew 2:16-18, which features the order for the slaughter of children in Bethlehem by an evil king. I hope that Newtown’s slain will be remembered as modern-day Holy Innocents whose lost lives redeem our world.
Related content on On Faith:
* Hallowell: The politicization of tragedy
* Dixon: Idolatry of the gun
* Thistlethwaite:Obama gives voice to the new national determination on gun control
* National Cathedral dean: ‘… the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby’
* Graham: Why the shock and awe?
* Pace: Comfort the grieving
* Stanley: In tragedy we grieve; in God, we hope
* Quinn: Where was God?
* Thistlethwaite:God weeps: 27 children, staff killed in Conn. school shooting