a holier holiday season

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Monsignor James Dorney, vicar of Staten Island — home to one-fifth of the New York City firefighters killed on Sept. 11 — looked out at his congregation at St. Peters church the following Sunday and recalled a pivotal Mass from his own youth, immediately after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. “I was 9 years old,� Dorney said. “My mother and I went to our parish in the Bronx, and knelt down on our knees as the pastor entered the pulpit for his homily. This was a time of much greater church attendance, but the church was significantly fuller than usual that morning. And the pastor looked out at us and he said, ‘How is it that the church is so packed today?’ That was 60 years ago. And here we are again, and the church is packed on Sunday.�

And not only on Staten Island. Across the country, attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques rose during the weeks following Sept. 11, as Americans sought solace in spiritual and human fellowship. But will this increased religious fervor mark a new era of piety in American lives, or is it just a temporary phase and soon we'll return to observance as usual?

Various surveys seem to suggest a renewal of faith. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on Sept. 14 and 15, which surveyed 1,023 adults nationwide, 74 percent said that as a result of the terrorist attack they were praying, or intended to pray, more than they usually do. And 6 in 10 said they planned to attend a memorial service. In the two days following the attack, 35 million Americans (almost 1 in 5) said they had attended a religious service, according to a poll of 1,001 adults nationwide conducted on Sept. 12 and 13 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In a Time/CNN poll of 1,055 adults conducted Sept. 27 by Harris Interactive, 7 out of 10 respondents said they'd sung “God Bless America� since the attack.

“Every poll shows large percentages of people saying they're praying,� says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and editor of The Diminishing Divide: Religion's Changing Role In American Politics (Brookings Institute, 2000). Kohut says the polls are especially likely to be reliable, since historically Americans have been candid with pollsters about their religious behavior.

The results of the polls are supported by anecdotal evidence from religious institutions and leaders across the nation. On the evening of the attacks, more than 5,000 people attended services at Harvard Yard's Memorial Church. That Sunday, many houses of worship opened to an overflow of visitors. Universities reported an increase in religious activity among students. Weeks later, the religious pull continues.

“The people who came to our mosque immediately after the attack have continued to come,� says Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. “I do expect more attendance in the coming months, and more continuity in attendance.�

At Our Lady of Victory church, located near Wall Street in Manhattan, parochial vicar, Monsignor George Baker says he was surprised that even with solid attendance at his daily Masses, an enormous crowd showed up for a special Mass of remembrance on Sept. 27. “It shows that people are still looking to exercise their faith,� he says. “People are coming in for counseling, wanting to express their grief; they've come to reevaluate the values they were placing on life. I think people will switch from more worldly things to more spiritual things in their lives.�

An Oct. 3 American Demographics poll of 1,000 American adults, conducted by Greenfield Online, found 38 percent of respondents said the Sept. 11 events had strengthened their spiritual beliefs. In a Pew survey of 1,001 adults between Oct. 1 and 3, 57 percent said they were praying more, down from 69 percent immediately after the attacks (Sept. 13 to 17), but still a high percentage. Of those worried about further attacks, 63 percent said they were praying more.

At the same time, by certain measures, changes in Americans' relationship with spirituality have not been significant. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Sept. 21 to 22, 47 percent of Americans said they attended church or synagogue in the past seven days, up only slightly from 41 percent in May. The number of Americans who said religion is “very important� in their lives rose to 64 percent, above the average of 58 percent during the past two years and higher than its last peak during the Gulf War.

Some clergy are skeptical about a general rekindling of piety. Rabbi Dorothy Richman of Congregation Beth Shalom in San Francisco says that although attendance has been high since the attacks, she doesn't see a “new revival coming out of this. … I wish it were the case,� she says. “Perhaps a certain group will rediscover and rededicate themselves because they feel a lack or an instability in their lives that they want to address.�

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and a Lutheran minister, believes there will be two types of change: seismic and glacial. Seismic change, he says, refers to a huge shift in American attitudes, as people adjust to a new sense of insecurity. “It's like after an earthquake,� Marty says. “You rebuild, but you're on a fault.� Seismic changes since Sept. 11 include higher attendance at church, greater intolerance of other faiths, particularly Islam, and disdain for nonbelievers, he says.

As evidence of longer-term, glacial change, Marty points to more people seeking religious counseling, volunteering and seeking education about different faiths. “I think you'll see shifts in American religious practices, in people's way of looking at things, in a more ready reliance on religion,� he predicts. This would build on a small but discernable trend in recent years of Americans turning back to traditional faiths and communal expressions of religious feeling. “It's not only happening among parents of young children, but also people in their 20s and 30s — the Bowling Alone generation — who, for example, show up for Habitat for Humanity and then discover the religious basis behind it, and are drawn in. I think we're building on that.�

The nation has been undergoing a revival of spirituality for some time now, both privately and publicly. A majority of Americans (59 percent according to an October 2000 Gallup poll of 1,024 adults) say they read the Bible at least occasionally; women, ethnic minorities, seniors and political conservatives are especially likely to do so (although readership has declined somewhat since the 1980s, when it averaged 73 percent). Most Americans also say they believe the Bible “answers all or most of the basic questions of life� and 75 percent say they want to increase their understanding of its teachings.

Americans, it seems, have a desire for more overt expressions of faith in the public sphere. In an August 2001 Gallup poll, 78 percent favored a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary prayer in public schools; 76 percent emphasized that such prayer should reflect the values of all major religions (while 18 percent further specified that the prayer should be Christian). Yet, even these urges are tempered by caution. In a November 2000 Public Agenda poll of 1,504 Americans, a majority (54 percent) said “opening the door to more religious influence in public life can easily get out of hand.� Nonbelievers (75 percent) — atheists and agnostics — and Jews (73 percent) were particularly likely to agree with that statement.

Nonetheless, many expect the newly heightened spirituality to affect product development and marketing strategy in the months to come. Authors and publishers have been among the first to respond to this call to faith. The Rev. Forest Church of the All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan will publish a collection of inspirational sermons by various religious leaders — from Billy Graham to leading Muslim imams such as Talib Abdur-Rashid and Mahammed Gemeaha — in a book titled, Restoring Faith: American Teachings in the Wake of Terror. Rodale will publish From the Ashes: A Spiritual Response to the Attack on America by mid-October and Regan Books, a unit of HarperCollins, quickly commissioned a book entitled God Bless America, a compilation of poems, essays and photos to be published by year's end. Zondervan, a San Francisco-based religious publisher, created a special page on its Web site, “Resources for a Nation in Grief,� featuring books such as A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, and God Bless America: Prayers and Reflections for Our Country.

Many religious institutions are also responding with special messages for those seeking solace and understanding. The United Methodist Church developed television and radio spots in English and Spanish and an interactive Webcast, replacing its current national and matching-grant efforts. Most religious organizations posted special messages on their Web sites; addressed the events of Sept. 11 in their services and launched their own fund-raising efforts for victims.

Changes in marketing and advertising strategy are likely to be more apparent during the coming holidays. Halloween already revealed a shift in tone from fright to fantasy, with retailers selling more costumes depicting the new order of heroes: firefighters and police officers. In early October, Hallmark and Coca-Cola announced a joint holiday promotion centered around traditional, nostalgic themes: old-fashioned Santas and “'Twas the Night Before Christmas.�

“Everyone is reconsidering their holiday marketing strategy,� says Jon Bond, co-chairman of New York-based advertising agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. “I think Christmas is going to be about being less commercial, more about the spirit of Christmas, being with friends and family. It's not about ‘Buy this cool, stylish new camera.’ It's about ‘Take pictures of the people you love to preserve the moment.’� Bond cautions against creating blatant, pandering messages or confusing religion and spirituality. “I think we need to look at underlying values, rather than at superficial symbols or overt flag-waving messages,� he says. “With the holidays, we have to remember, not everyone is religious, not everyone is Christian. The thing that applies to everyone is spirituality, which is really about being in touch with the people you care for.�

In a presentation on Sept. 26, J. Walker Smith president of Norwalk, Conn.-based research firm Yankelovich Partners, advised marketers, “The holidays this year should be centered solely on family and kids, with much less commercialism. Gift giving is likely to be big. Traditions and traditional values, even nostalgia, will be present everywhere.� Wenham, Mass.-based advertising agency Mullen conducted a study in late September that showed a clear emphasis on making connections and deriving meaning from traditions.

“Church and spirituality definitely play a role in that,� says managing partner and director of brand planning Ted Nelson. “Religion for most Americans is an important part of how they grew up, and right now, people want to get close to the things that are emotionally important to them, that drive who they are, and help them understand what their place is in the world.�

At the same time, Nelson argues that the holidays will continue to reflect Americans' strong consumerist patterns. “If you want to get back to the rituals and traditions, that might mean throwing a lavish Thanksgiving dinner or buying a huge Christmas tree with lights like you had when you were a child — that will all be back in vogue.� He sees traditional wooden toys, railroad sets, real log fires, advent candles, angels and anything that says “authenticity, quality and simplicity� as being strong sellers for the holidays.

If the holiday season shifts more toward the holy, the impetus to do so also isn't exactly new. In a Gallup poll taken of 1,026 adults in December 2000, people expressed a desire for a more religious, less consumerist, celebration of Christmas. Forty-two percent said they would enjoy a gift-less holiday more, up from 28 percent in 1994. Looks like the Norman Rockwell revival of recent years may finally start to make sense.

you've got to have faith

Forty-six percent of Americans are most comfortable right now with people who either share their faith or have faith of some kind.

Which best describes your attitude toward other faiths right now?*
TOTAL < 25 25-34 35-44 45-54 55+ WEST CENTRAL SOUTH EAST
I am most comfortable with people who share my own faith right now 9% 11% 9% 9% 7% 9% 4% 12% 12% 5%
Regardless of religion, I am comfortable with anyone who has faith of some kind 37% 36% 27% 41% 36% 48% 38% 33% 37% 42%
Other peoples' faith or lack of faith is of no concern to me right now 40% 42% 49% 37% 42% 31% 44% 40% 35% 44%
To be honest, I am having trouble understanding the Muslim faith right now 14% 11% 15% 14% 16% 14% 15% 16% 15% 9%
*Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding. Source: American Demographics/Greenfield Online Poll, October 2001

community revival

Related to the idea of spiritual renewal is the belief that America will experience a revival and strengthening of communitarian feeling. In addition to giving money, Americans volunteered time and energy to an extraordinary degree in the weeks following the tragedy. Across the country, donors gave funds and filled blood banks after waiting in lines for hours. “There's plenty of evidence that Americans not only reached out to friends and family, but to a broader community,� says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “And I think that as we continue to try to solve these problems, they will continue to do that.�

Adds Rajwant Singh, president of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education in Washington, D.C.: “We've seen people who haven't had much contact with the Sikh community recently, coming in and feeling they need to get involved.�

Just after the attack, Americans reached out to each other in increasing numbers and frequency, with phone lines across the country jammed in the first few days. Nearly 3 in 4 Americans (74 percent) said they contacted family and friends by phone or the Internet in the two days following the attack, according to a poll of 1,226 adults conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Sept. 12 to 13. During that period, 13 percent of Internet users attended virtual meetings or participated in online communities through chat rooms, bulletin boards and list serves, significantly greater than the usual 4 percent of users. According to the Pew Internet Project: “Online communities were an emotional, spiritual, cerebral, primal and sorrowful place for Americans to sort out their feelings and hash out their views.�

Not all meetings were virtual, however. More than 1 in 10 Americans went to live meetings to discuss the attacks during the first two days — even before Friday's National Day of Mourning, when millions attended candlelight vigils, memorials and prayer services.

“People crave comfort, people crave connection, people crave community,� says Marianne Williamson, spiritual leader of the Church of Today and author of Healing the Soul of America (Simon & Schuster, 1999). “I think this tragedy has already strengthened community. We were a society of many separate little ‘we's’ and now we've become a continent of collective wisdom, a nationwide ‘we.’ Now we're aware of a greater connectedness.�

community spirit

Gen Ys are most likely to identify with the people around them; least likely to identify with people across the country.

The community to which I feel most closely aligned is defined as:*
TOTAL < 25 25-34 35-44 45-54 55+ WEST CENTRAL SOUTH EAST
The people who live around me 30% 42% 29% 26% 28% 22% 33% 30% 25% 31%
The people who share my faith 14% 11% 17% 14% 13% 13% 12% 14% 17% 11%
The people who share my political ideas 5% 5% 3% 5% 6% 8% 6% 5% 6% 4%
My fellow Americans 51% 41% 51% 55% 52% 55% 48% 50% 52% 54%
*Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding. Source: American Demographics/Greenfield Online Poll, October 2001

women and children first

Women and households with children show a greater change in spiritual practices/attitudes.

Percent agreeing that:
The events of Sept. 11 have strengthened my religious or spiritual beliefs 38% 30% 47% 41% 33% 45% 34%
I expect to attend religious services more regularly during the next few months 18% 11% 25% 18% 17% 24% 13%
I plan to celebrate the holiday season differently this year 18% 11% 24% 17% 19% 22% 15%
Of those who plan to celebrate differently this year:
I plan to put more emphasis on the religious aspect of the holiday 34% 25% 38% 34% 34% 42% 26%
I will spend more time at home or by myself or with my immediate family 52% 52% 53% 54% 51% 57% 48%
I will spend more time with my extended family 50% 46% 51% 48% 51% 53% 47%
Source: American Demographics/Greenfield Online Poll, October 2001

religious rhetoric

Americans overwhelmingly approve of religious references in political rhetoric.

Politicians' expressions of faith are:
Too much 12% 2% 12% 9% 35%
Too little 22% 41% 15% 9% 9%
Just right 60% 52% 68% 78% 48%
Note: Numbers do not sum to 100 percent because not all answers are shown.
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Oct. 1-3, 2001
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