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Rush-hour traffic emerged from the Battery Tunnel and roared up West Street on that gray, overcast afternoon as I made my way through the narrow, temporary passageways that snake around partially constructed buildings and deep foundation pits. My ticket for the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site gets checked one last time at the temporary entrance on the southwest corner, and then I feel my heart rate climb and my throat constrict.

Designed by Michael Arad, the central foci of the memorial are two deep, square pools that mark the footprints of the two destroyed buildings. A delicate screen of water cascades down the sides, evoking the thin vertical strands that were the main architectural feature of the two towers that once dominated the skyline of lower Manhattan. The pools of water drain into still deeper shafts at their centers. Bronze railings surround the two pools of falling water, and into them are inscribed the names of those who died on September 11, 2001, not just at the World Trade Center, but also at the Pentagon and on the airplane that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside.

I am looking for the names of the three men who were my college classmates.

A sign points the way to computers that provide locations for specific names. I fumble for a while. A memorial volunteer hovers nearby. But I soon grasp the simple system, and find my three classmates. The machine prints out tasteful, individualized cards with their locations on the brass railings clearly marked. The volunteer asks if I need any help. Uncertain whether I can actually speak, I croak out, “I’ve got my names.”

Thomas Irwin Glasser, panel S-49. I stand in front of his name and look into the south pool. Inwardly I see Tom pitching forward and crumpling into an exhausted heap as he crosses the finish line at an indoor track meet at Swarthmore College in 1982. I gaze at the falling curtains of water on the sides of the pool. The downward plunge evokes the collapsing buildings. The central drains look bottomless, reinforcing the feeling of perpetual disintegration.

Douglas Benjamin Gardner, panel N-38, and Calvin Joseph Gooding, immediately to his right, panel N-39. Their names are on the southeast corner of the north pool. As I look again at the cascading water and the central, bottomless, pitiless drain into which the water inevitably, inexorably flows, images of freshly dug graves flash before my mind. Then, for the briefest moment, I see myself hurtling down into the abysmal pit of destruction. “Death, Death, Death,” chant the 2983 names around the railings, echoing in the water falling into the sunken pools and disappearing into the gaping mouths of the hungry drains. The annihilating power of death—at this moment it seems not the main thrust of the memorial; it is the only thrust.

Then I turn and look up at the huge American flag draped on the side of One World Trade Center, the massive, partially completed building towering above the south pool. My emotions shift. In the inner ear of my imagination I hear bugles rallying the troops. Tom and Doug and Calvin and I merge into a larger loyalty. Yes, they are dead—as I will be—but together in my mind’s eye we are rising in strength rather than collapsing into a pit of nothingness. For a brief moment my soul hardens with resolve, and I feel an emotion of consolation that neither cancels nor denies nor forgets the inescapable personal reality of death, but instead draws it into something larger, something durable, something noble.

The flag on the side of One World Trade Center is not actually part of the 9/11 Memorial. The building is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and on September 10, in advance of the 9/11 ceremony, Port Authority administrators made what a spokesman described as “a spur-of-the-moment decision.” They decided to hang the flag (which, being the Port Authority, they had on hand to hang from the stanchions of the George Washington Bridge). So there it was, one of the largest American flags in the world, providing visitors like me with release from the 9/11 Memorial’s death-focused nihilism.

Apparently my patriotic reveries were contrary to the intentions of those responsible for the planning and design of the 9/11 Memorial. For the official site contains no flags, nor any other national symbols, nor religious symbols for that matter. The reflecting pools, the austere stone benches, and the solemn rows of trees: The design amounts to a tasteful memorial park, a non-religious site to remember those whom we have lost. It’s all about the deaths of these individuals, the 9/11 Memorial says. It’s not about our life as a nation.

The setting reinforces this turn away from any national solidarity and common purposes. The Memorial will be surrounded by the glassy modernism of the new buildings rising at the site. They will look exactly like other tall buildings of the sort one finds today in Shanghai and Dubai. Moreover, on the island of Manhattan, the Memorial stands at the center of global capitalism, itself a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, atomizing force in our postmodern world.

The overall effect is to downplay our citizenship and accentuate our shared, naked humanity. Surrounded by a faceless international style of architecture and stripped of national symbolism, the 9/11 Memorial offers no public meaning. There is nothing to dissent from—and nothing to consent to.

Instead, we are invited to contemplate the annihilating abyss of death, a sad, inevitable destiny we all share. And to remember the dead individuals—or, as the brochure for the soon-to-open museum encourages, to tell our own personal stories.

The emphasis on the personal comes as no surprise. Maya Lin was a prominent member of the building committee for the 9/11 Memorial, and her widely acclaimed Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington takes a similar approach. The long, sunken black wall that constitutes the main feature of that memorial is also inscribed with names, the names of those who died in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Yet what succeeds in Washington fails in New York. National symbolism saturates the Mall. Whatever one thinks of the design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial marks a national endeavor, one that invariably engages our patriotic emotions: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Soviet expansionism, napalm, My Lai, Kent State, South Vietnamese democracy and North Vietnamese communism, the Pentagon Papers, the boat people. So easily do we slip back into the old patterns of thought and remember the rancorous national debates.

It is important to realize that criticism of and regrets about our nation are just as warmly engaged in national identity as are boosterism and misty-eyed sentimentality. Patriotic emotions can be sour as well as sweet. Those who wrote Amerika on their placards were intoxicated with collective emotions, just as much as those who marched in their American Legion uniforms. Both saw Vietnam through the lenses of solidarity, one dark and the other rose colored. Was the war an expression of arrogant imperialism—or a defense of freedom? At stake was the identity of our nation, not the lives of individuals.

Maya Lin’s genius was to arrest these collective trains of thought. The individual names force us down to the human reality of the Vietnam War’s terrible toll. Her design re-saturates our anxious collective memories with thoughts of concrete and particular lives. Each man’s name echoes with a personal story: with parents, with wives and lovers, with families and children, with hometowns and friends. We’re reminded that our patriotism is not an end in itself. Our nation is worthy of our loyalty—and perhaps needs our criticism—insofar as it does justice (or fails to do justice) to our humanity.

In this way, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial purifies patriotism rather than undermining it. The names inscribed there tether our collective memories and feelings of national solidarity to fundamental human realities, reminding us that a nation may be greater than the particularity of any one life, or even the sum of them all, but it is so because it serves to protect and enrich our lives rather than submerging or erasing them.

Unfortunately, the 9/11 Memorial’s use of particular names has a very different effect. It atomizes rather than individualizes, severing the personal from the patriotic rather than rejoining them. After all, unlike the names on the Vietnam Memorial, Tom and Doug and Calvin were not drafted to serve in the Twin Towers. No chain of command linked them to the Pentagon, and then to the White House and Capitol Hill. Purposely devoid of national symbolism, the 9/11 Memorial presents Tom, Doug, and Calvin only as they were in the moments before the planes struck the towers—as individuals going about their daily lives.

Men do not erect public monuments and memorials to serve as objective, dispassionate records of historical events. At their best they shape our consciousness of the past for the sake of our common life in the future. Therein lies the failure of the 9/11 Memorial. A quiet, peaceful place of repose amidst a busy city—it will be cherished by future Wall Street workers as a nice place for lunch on a sunny day. But its design serves no future, conjuring instead the blank, perpetual, unchanging power of death, and encouraging the atomizing particularity of personal memory.

It is true that the victims whose names are inscribed on the brass railings died as we all must die, as individuals, but they did not die simply as individuals. The airplanes piloted into the buildings were not like the car that killed another classmate of mine a couple of years ago as he was changing his bike tire on the roadside, nor were the collapsing towers like the avalanches that have killed friends in the mountains, or the cancer that killed my mother.

Tom and Doug and Calvin, and almost three thousand others, died because Osama bin Laden planned a terrorist attack, not on them as individuals, but on us as Americans. They died as citizens and residents of a global superpower. It is dishonest to suppress this fact, as the 9/11 Memorial does.

It encourages us to see their deaths as solely personal—or as coldly and abstractly universal. That’s why, as I stood before their names, I saw only their faces, felt only their absence, and entertained thoughts of my own mortality.

Citizens, Not Subjects

Our patriotic desire to unite in solidarity can become undisciplined and distorted, manifesting itself in overheated and corrupted patriotic emotions that weld people together into an uncritical mass. It is a phenomenon all too easily encouraged and manipulated by demagogues. To avoid this danger, contemporary elite opinion tends to adopt a postpatriotic mentality, one that is pained by vigorous expressions of patriotism and imagines itself superior because they are “tolerant,” “sensitive to differences,” and “inclusive.”

There is a danger in this approach as well, however, one I experienced when I visited the 9/11 Memorial. An acute sense of national identity may be vulnerable to abuse, but it creates a communal solidarity that binds together the powerful with the weak, the rich with the poor, the leaders with the led. Patriotism encourages a shared sense of common purpose, one that brings the president to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the buck private while both are saluting the flag. The same holds for shared moral and religious convictions. We are all governed by the same moral law, and God is not, as the older translations of the Acts of the Apostles put it, “a respecter of persons.”

Mid-century totalitarianism perverted patriotism, seeking to annihilate the individual by absorbing him into a supposedly higher and more sacred collective destiny: the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the Thousand-Year Reich, and so forth. I fear that our present-day elites now tend to operate in the opposite way, not by constructing grand schemes to absorb us, but instead by deconstructing them and isolating us as individuals. The postmodern critical mentality weakens the religious, moral, and national convictions that draw us together. It seeks to repress patriotism rather than exaggerate it, and in the place of the old rhetoric of solidarity offers only therapeutic terms.

We see this tendency in the dominant way with which our leaders now talk about 9/11. They focus on “tragedy,” “loss,” and “healing.” The 9/11 Memorial itself is almost entirely organized around this therapeutic approach, which tries to create a “sensitive” atmosphere for us to “explore” our own meanings.

As Martin Filler observes with some dismay in his enthusiastic review of the 9/11 Memorial in the New York Review of Books, a family member of one of the victims described the memorial as cold, complaining that “there should have been flowers or pictures or something.” It’s a natural impulse. Faced with death and alone in our grief, we want to express our emotions and honor the dead with something living—a simple, shared tradition of memorial flowers, perhaps, or religious rituals, or a reminder of a larger, national narrative in which their deaths play a part.

Filler’s response on behalf of designer Michael Arad is telling: “But of course it is precisely the abstract nature of Arad’s design, which eschews all representational imagery, that allows visitors to project onto it thoughts and interpretations of a much more individual nature than if the memorial had been laden with pre-packaged symbols of grief.” The same dismissive response would obtain, I assume, for my own desire for flags. Shared rituals, common narrative, and national symbols corrupt and diminish our freedom to make our own meanings, or so we are often told.

This seems, at first glance, a gesture of humility. “We cannot pretend to tell you, dear visitor, what 9/11 means for you,” this way of thinking seems to say, “We can only facilitate your personal journey.” But what seems is not so, for the therapeutic approach can easily reflect the ambitions of what Pope Benedict famously called the “dictatorship of relativism,” a regime of opinion that dissolves the strong convictions that allow us to hold the powerful accountable, which is an essential dimension of a free society.

We ignore our patriotic emotions at our peril. As Maya Lin recognized when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, perhaps only intuitively and perhaps in contrast to her conscious beliefs, but nonetheless successfully, our patriotism needs to be purified, not denied. The basic achievement of modern democratic culture has been the transformation of passive subjects into active citizens. Repressing national symbols, the dictatorship of relativism threatens to turn us into a mere collection of individuals, saluting nothing together, serving nothing together, sacrificing for nothing together.

Atomized and isolated, we risk becoming passive subjects again. As the national symbols that arouse patriotic emotions are repressed (“We don’t want to encourage jingoism!”)—and forthright moral language is set aside (“We mustn’t be judgmental!”), the purposes of leadership change. You and I must be managed therapeutically by experts—administrators of our soft, postmodern dictatorship of relativism—rather than engaged as fellow citizens.

This, it seems to me, is our postmodern political temptation. Under the dictatorship of relativism we risk retaining the outward forms of a democratic culture while losing a vital sense of public meaning that can engage us in a common cause—and hold us accountable to it. Instead of citizens, we are damaged psyches of “tragedy” that need “healing” and isolated individuals who are encouraged to tell our own “personal stories.”

I am not entirely pessimistic. When I visited the 9/11 Memorial I noticed that somebody had left one of those “prepackaged symbols” that Martin Filler so dislikes. It was a small pennant-sized American flag wedged into the top of one of the letters in James Patrick Leahy’s name. Like the patriotic sentiment it expressed, the thin wooden shaft fit perfectly. And then, on my way to the subway after I left the Memorial, I passed Charlotte’s Place, a community center that was hosting an arts project commemorating 9/11. On the walls were dozens of inventive renditions of the American flag, some loving, some critical, as it should be.

That small, solitary flag and the unofficial exhibition struck me as more honest—and more humane—than the half billion dollar 9/11 Memorial with its cascading water and brass railings. Yes, of course many of us have personal 9/11 stories. But we also share a national story.

America the Pious—and Impious

American Religion is a useful little book. Duke sociologist Mark Chaves provides a concise summary of religious trends in America over the last four decades. His main conclusion: Things haven’t changed very much. Fair enough, but his book shows that one thing has changed significantly.

For most of the past three hundred years, he observes, something like 35 to 40 percent of the population have been regular churchgoers. Today, according to a 2008 survey, 37 percent say that they attend services at least weekly. People tend to overestimate their religious observance, so the percent actually in church on any given Sunday is lower. But the main social fact remains. For a very long time, over a third of Americans have strongly identified with religious institutions.

There have been some shifts. Since 1972 people have become more likely to switch churches and denominations. Catholics and Protestants intermarry a lot more, and for the most part people give less ardent answers to questions about who will be saved, and so forth. In other words, like so much else in American society, church life is more fluid and less sharply defined.

Without doubt, however, the biggest change in recent years has been the dramatic increase in the number of people who aren’t religious at all. The statistics are striking. In 1957 a government survey reported that only 3 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation; but in a 2008 survey 17 percent said so.

As Chaves observes, this may not indicate very much change in practice. A half century ago a quarter of the population probably never (or hardly ever) went to church. But in those days nearly everyone felt a degree of social pressure to see himself (or perhaps be seen) as religious. That’s no longer the case. Today a significant percentage of Americans are quite willing to say that they have no religion.

This is a difference that makes a difference. “A society in which the least religious people still claim a religious identity for themselves,” writes Chaves, “is importantly different than a society in which the least religious people tell others, and perhaps admit to themselves, that they in fact have no religion.” It’s not hard to understand how this change came to pass. From the professoriate to the New York Times and on to Hollywood, elite opinion has adopted a secularist mentality. This shift in elite culture, which was already underway in the 1950s, has altered the social imagination of middle-class America, making it possible for a school teacher in Des Moines, for example, to live confidently and unapologetically with no religion at all.

The rise of this secularist mentality is directly correlated to the decline of mainline Protestantism, a social change in America the importance of which cannot be overestimated. These churches once served as important institutions for American progressives, drawing liberal elites into the circle of faith. It’s hard for anyone under fifty to imagine, but places like Union Seminary in New York were once very influential. This is no longer the case, and as a result many of the leaders and activists who provide the agenda for contemporary American liberalism lack any living contact with religion.

The current lack of contact was driven home to me recently when I was searching for an article by Claude Welch, a theologian of sorts whose academic career largely corresponded to the declining influence of religion on elite culture. Instead of the article I was looking for, I found a short editorial in the Harvard Crimson from 1959. In it, Welch expressed the anxious concern that Harvard was no longer a recognizably Protestant university.

Today such concerns bring laughter—or more likely incomprehension. It is a simple fact that places like Harvard, which is to say most of the powerful, establishment institutions in America, are dominated by the 17 percent who are confident secularists.

By my reckoning, the emergence of this new mentality in America—the secularist mentality—helps explain our cultural and political conflicts today. Put simply, the rise of a confident and unapologetic secularism over the last half century has polarized society by disrupting a relatively moderate range of social opinion that once held sway. For the first half of the twentieth century, the great national conflict was between labor and capital. But union organizers (or at least the workers they organized) and factory owners by and large shared what might be called loosely a Judeo-Christian mentality.

The old conflict between labor and capital has become less stark, in part because economic interests have become more deeply intertwined in our postindustrial age. A new conflict has taken its place. Sex, marriage, family—a confident and often aggressive secularist mentality frequently challenges the presumptive authority of the older Judeo-Christian consensus, redefining a great deal of American political life in terms of cultural and moral questions.

This change is evident in the polling data Chaves presents. He observes that in the 1970s, churchgoers were a bit more conservative than non-churchgoers. Today, he says, they are significantly more conservative, and that difference is largely defined in terms of attitudes toward moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

Pundits like to blame the rise of the religious right for today’s polarized public life. Mark Chaves’ conclusion that churchgoers have become “more conservative” supports this conventional way of thinking. But “more” is a comparative term, and it’s important to clarify that churchgoers are “more conservative” almost entirely in the sense of becoming more and more self-conscious of their need to resist the moral and cultural revolutions launched by the secularists, who over the last half-century have been battering away at the social consensus in America—in the universities, media, and courts. Religious conservatives are only “polarizing” in a quite limited sense: We don’t sheepishly obey the dictates of the secular and self-appointed vanguard.

Notes from the Editor’s Desk

On the first Monday of October, Gilbert Meilaender delivered our annual Erasmus Lecture. Speaking to a large audience at the Union League Club in New York on “A Complete Life,” he offered profound reflections on what makes for a full or finished life, a question especially significant with the prospect of our own deaths in view. It was not just learned but wise. We plan to publish the lecture in the next (January 2012) issue.

As is our custom, a group of a dozen scholars—Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox—gathered on the following day to discuss the lecture, and interrogate the lecturer. The fundamental nature of the topics raised, the breadth of traditions represented, and the fruitfulness of the give-and-take reminded me of the unique contribution First Things makes: bringing together intelligent men and women of faith from many different backgrounds who are trying to articulate deep truths for our age.

I am pleased to announce that the philosopher (and long-time friend of the magazine) Jean Bethke Elshtain will deliver the 2012 Erasmus Lecture on Monday, October 8, again at the Union League Club. As always, the lecture will be free and open to the public. Save the date. I look forward to seeing you there.

About the time you receive this issue, you will also be receiving a letter from me asking for your financial support. We’ve had an interesting year, and a good one. We’re committed to producing a unique magazine that engages the contemporary moral, cultural, and religious challenges we face, and doing so in light of what is timeless and eternal.

It’s a successful enterprise (over 27,000 subscribers as I write), but not a money-making one. No serious magazine is. As a non-profit we’ve always depended upon your generosity—and you’ve always come through. I hope you’ll give again.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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