What is the point of remembering the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? I don’t ask that question rhetorically. Is to remind us that we live in a state of insecurity? Is it to remember those who perished on that day? Or is it to inspire a unity among Americans?
Just as his predecessor George W. Bush repeatedly did, Barack Obama has consistently referred to the national unity that existed following the attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden. On the night that bin Laden was killed, the president concluded his brief statement asking Americans to “think back to the unity that prevailed on 9/11.” The tracking down and killing of the world’s most notorious terrorist came as a result, the president suggested, of “American determination”–not Republican or Democrat or Northern or Western determination but American. Obama has desperately wanted to appeal to a sense of the American, to declare without irony or cynicism that the United States is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
As sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote in 1988, that phrase captures a division within America rather than the unity of the nation. Wuthnow suggested that a conservative civil religion sees a nation under God, while a liberal civil religion propounds a nation that promotes liberty and justice for all. The point is, the nation stands divided; even though both sides appeal to the same Constitution, and “pray” to the same national god, the prayers of both will never be answered.
For Obama, that fact appears to be endlessly frustrating. In his inaugural address he made a forceful demand: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture,” Obama declared, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” In short, let’s move beyond the culture wars.
Bush offered a similar appeal in his first inaugural: “Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country.” On that day, Bush pledged to “work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity” and appealed to Americans to find unity of purpose in “ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens.” Like Obama, it was September 11 that provided the touchstone for national unity. In his first major address to Congress following the attacks, Bush delivered many statements to rousing applause, but among the most well-received was when he declared: “as we act to win the war, protect the people, and create jobs in America, we must act first and foremost, not as Republicans, not as Democrats but as Americans.”
Of course, both presidents pine for national unity. And it is not surprising that both look almost wistfully at 9/11 as a moment that seemed to place selflessness above selfishness. But 9/11 unity, as Ben suggested in his recent post, is contested (to say the least). What I find interesting is the way these two presidents view 9/11 as point that separated an era defined by the culture wars from an era that would be defined by a unity that rose above them. And the projects of David Sehat and Andrew Hartman, two USIH colleagues, are quite relevant here. David’s book made me consider that for Bush, 9/11 was suppose to bring an end to a dispute over the moral authority governing the nation and make possible a evangelical Protestant order that rhetorically placed America under the judgment of a God whom only Bush and his supporters understood. Andrew’s work helped me understand that for Obama, 9/11 was suppose to make it possible for the nation to take stock of the progress made during the culture wars but then move beyond them to an understanding of America that no longer needed to fight (or re-fight) battles of race, class, gender, and faith.
That neither president has had his hopes realized is clear. I wonder, though, how we then see 9/11 amidst the culture wars. And whether, despite Obama’s statements, we are a better nation divided for then at least we know where we stand.