by Mark Hulsether, Ph.D.*
This week I fielded a query from the University of Tennessee campus newspaper about legacies of 9/11/2001. Its reporter asked: “How did 9/11 strengthen or weaken the religious faith of Americans? How did it change the way people think about mortality, evil, and hope? In what ways are we still dealing with the fallout?”
As I have discussed here and here before, I seem to lack an aptitude—whether this is virtue or a vice—of pumping out the sort of soundbites that reporters wish for. But in any case, I got a blog post out of it that’s not terribly long. I replied as follows:
First, I would caution you that framing a question about “THE religious faith” of “Americans” [ALL or most of them] will get us into trouble. It is like asking about the impact of COVID on all kinds of “family” in the whole world, or something equally unfocused and dubiously productive. Are you sure that framing this way is not a category mistake?
Now, if we narrow to trends that hold for many white Christians—who if we lump all of them together are a majority of “American faith,” although not everywhere and not by a large margin—maybe we can get more leverage. Lumping them could be another category mistake. But if we focus on how 9/11 deepened cracks in their culture war, that may help. I worry about even this as a generalization because there are so many things going on besides culture war, but it is part of the truth in a big picture.
Definitely 9/11 was used to stir up arguments for the neoconservative goals of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, including appeals to US military power throughout the world against “radical Islam” and “terrorism.” Definitely this translated into a lot of ugly repression of Muslims (another group we can’t lump together as one bloc) as well as people who didn’t want a war in Iraq or an intensified national security state at home. There was a lot of talk about national unity—although some of it “protesting too much,” enough to undermine itself—and we suffered the strongest climate of censorship and self-censorship that we have experienced in our country since the McCarthy era. The campaign to destroy the Dixie Chicks’ career is a famous example, and of course Guantanamo Bay prison was in the background.
If we consider how 9/11 was a big step forward for conservatives proving willing and able to pursue their goals in an authoritarian way—disregarding majority popular will on the ground and acting in line with Cheney’s idea that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”—this undoubtedly a sobering legacy. It gets us half-way to the hypothesis that I suspect the reporter wanted me to support with my soundbite: that 9/11 was a generational milestone like Pearl Harbor, moving the goalposts of legitimate discussion toward the right. I have heard this often from my students, enough to gather that Tennessee churches and schools often teach this is as the simple truth.
Nevertheless, especially if we focus on reasonably broad democratic legitimation of national priorities, I believe this line of thought is half true at best.
Even Bush himself pulled back from “crusade against Islam” messaging after 9/11 because it was counterproductive for his goals. We might say that he dog-whistled about it anyway. But when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the top leaders of the Christian right, famously said “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…[and groups like the ACLU] who have tried to secularize America” were partly responsible for the attacks, with 9/11 as a sign that “God will be not mocked,” they got so much blowback they had to walk it back, however grudgingly. (Falwell said he forgot to include a “sleeping church that is not praying enough” on his list of the guilty.) This was off-message from Bush and Cheney’s efforts to build unity and legitimacy for their wider goals. And then Falwell and Robertson’s quote was used more often to attack them than it was to support their ideas. A lot of people have defected from the organized Christian right because of this sort of thing since 9/11—this is a strong generational trend for young people raised as white evangelicals, and it distorts the standard talking point about steady white evangelical support for Trump around 75-80% because the “pool of 100%” in the background is shrinking.
Approaching from this angle, it may be that 9/11’s biggest long-term effect was to hurt the popular legitimacy of the religious right and to help both secularists and the religious left. Think of how the Chicks (formerly known as Dixie Chicks) reputation is better today because of the publicity and sympathy from the campaign against them than it would have been if they had kept silent in 2003.
This is not to deny that many people on the right wing of the culture war did think the second Iraq war was a sort of religious crusade, prophesied in the Bible. Such ideas were pushed overtly by Falwell and sometimes dog-whistled by Bush and Cheney. Obviously that did matter. Many people who watched FOX thought Bin Laden (whose family was in a business partnership with Bush and whose rise was sponsored by the US originally) was hand in glove with Saddam Hussein. To a remarkable extent, propaganda encouraged people simply to conflate the two, and as country star Alan Jackson said in his extremely popular song, this was supposed to be good enough for a “singer of simple songs”: “I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran/But I know Jesus and I talk to God.”
But by the same token, a lot of people knew that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks (he was a secularist authoritarian who was a long-time enemy of both Sunni Islamists like Bin Laden and Shi’a Muslims in both his own country and Iran). They knew that Bush and Cheney were lying about their supposed reasons for the war (and let’s be frank, that makes them war criminals under international law and grossly evil in Christian terms). They knew that Bin Laden had risen as an ally of the US military. They rallied to defend Muslim civil rights and religious freedom (remember how we narrowed to white Christians before?—that leaves out a lot of “American faith,” including Muslims suffering a great deal from harassment and outright repression.)
Even Jackson’s song presupposed that religious people should stand for “faith, hope and love” and only go to war as a lesser evil. That was a double-edged sword because many of his fans probably assumed he was implying that “our God”—as opposed to bin Laden’s—was for love, even though “Allah” and “God” are two words for the same concept, like “I love you” and “te amo.” But still his underlying presupposition was that God would prefer peace to a war justified by lies, and still that remains the religious common sense of most Christians and Muslims. Later a solid majority of citizens rallied to the Obama campaign in a sort of wave of disgust against Bush and Cheney. So the “consensus” unity promoted by (censored) news turned out to be a bubble that popped in 2007 and 2008. The antiwar movement in 2003 was probably the largest in US history, and here again the debacle of the war probably hurt conservative legitimacy in the long run.
Today Trump and Biden both downplay how much they supported the war at the time. This makes sense because the ability of Obama to note how he had opposed the war, more than Clinton, was one of the key reasons he beat Clinton for the 2008 presidential nomination. Later, Trump’s ability to claim he had been lukewarm about the war—misleading but still non-trivial compared to the other GOP candidates—was a key to him separating from them in 2016. He also used this as a talking point against Clinton to win the electoral college and is trying to repeat the technique against Biden today. Trump’s promises to help white working people were more important to his success, but part of his argument was about shifting money from funding foreign wars toward helping ordinary people at home. It should go without saying that this turned out to be a con, a bait and switch, but still it shows an interesting legacy resulting from the debacle of the war.
If we want to boil all this down to a single image, I would say 9/11 was either a major link in the chain that we now call the culture war, or a step in deepening it—but emphatically it helped both sides in the long run.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, the Knoxville News-Sentinel published a memorial issue featuring a picture of a U.S. flag hanging, in the place where one might expect Jesus, from a wooden cross. I have shown this to a whole generation of UT students in my classes and it seems to resonate deeply.
But I emphatically don’t say this was consensual—an image of “THE faith” of “THE (real) Americans”—because it provoked an equal and opposite reaction on the left-liberal side, including an ongoing infusion of strength for the religious left and all kinds of people who still assume that both Jesus (properly understood) and US democracy (at its best) favor peacemaking over crusading.
Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee, 2008 to present.
Earlier titles and/or ranks at Tennessee: Director of Interdisciplinary Program in American Studies, 2011-2017; Associate Head of Religious Studies, 2009-2011; Professor 2008; Associate Professor 1999; Assistant Professor 1993. (Includes Associated Faculty Status in History and Global Studies.)
Visiting Instructor, Department of Religion, Carleton College, 1993.
Ph.D., Program in American Studies, University of Minnesota, 1992.
M.Div., Magna Cum Laude, Yale University Divinity School, 1984.
B.A., Liberal Arts, St. Olaf College, 1979