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Prayer Circle

Our Newfound Foxhole Religion Fades

Downtown Washington, D.C.

For the past couple of years the nine a.m. Sung Eucharist has been the most popular of the three Sunday Masses at St. Paul's Episcopal on K Street, with around 130 of the church's 675 members in attendance on your average Sunday. The service has more candles, music, and ceremonial pomp--"smells and bells," as the Reverend Edwin Barnett calls it--than the 7:45 a.m. Low Mass. And for the many families with children, it is more convenient than the midday Mass. On this late August morning, however, only 85 or so congregants are scattered throughout the nave, with most of the smooth wooden pews supporting a mere two or three backsides. As with many houses of worship in D.C., things are slow at St. Paul's in the summer: College students have gone home for the break, Congress is out of session, and families are away on holiday. So for a lazy, off-season Sunday in the nation's capital, today's sparse turnout is pretty standard.

But the very ordinariness of August at St. Paul's seems extraordinary when you recall that just nine months ago there was broad talk of a nationwide religious revival. Americans' rush to find solace in religion, in fact, was among the first trends noted by the media during those early, tender days just after September 11. News outlets both staid (The New York Times) and silly (People Magazine) marveled at the crowds filling houses of worship from Washington to California, from Minnesota to Texas. On September 23, more than 20,000 mourners came together for the ecumenical prayer service at Yankee Stadium.

Pollsters swiftly took to the phones to document the phenomenon. A cnn/USA Today/Gallup survey, conducted just three days after the horror, reported that 74 percent of adults were praying or intended to pray more than usual as a result of the attacks. A Pew poll conducted around the same time put the number at 69 percent. Two months later, echoing many religious leaders, Pat Robertson told CNN's Paula Zahn, "[W]hat we're seeing is that this awful attack, as horrific as it was and as heartrending, is bringing about one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America. People are turning to God. The churches are full."

But even as Robertson was making his declaration, the signs of revival were receding. As attendance at religious services began falling toward pre-tragedy levels (a trend that reportedly cut across most faiths), it increasingly looked as though we hadn't been transformed after all. A November 26 report by the Barna Research Group, a Christian polling firm based in Southern California, indicated just how dramatically our theological outlook had not changed. In a November survey examining "21 indicators of the nation's spiritual climate," Barna found no significant difference between pre- and post-attack levels of church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer, as well as the number of people who "strongly agree[d]" that religious faith was very important in their lives.

Although many religious leaders sound vaguely disappointed that a permanent spiritual metamorphosis did not occur, some admit that they always assumed people's behavior would return to pre-attack norms. In the weeks immediately following the tragedy, St. Paul's nine o'clock services swelled to upward of 200 people. "But I don't think anyone would surely expect those sudden elevated numbers to stay that way," says Barnett. "Those numbers were an indication of a perturbation to a system. Anytime there's a perturbation to any kind of system there's a ripple effect that goes out, and those waves will gradually decay with distance and time." Indeed, a report issued in December by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life noted that similar increases in prayer and religious attendance occurred after President Ronald Reagan was shot and during the Gulf war--and proved to be just as ephemeral. "It's what a lot of people call foxhole religion,'" agrees the Reverend Frank Wade, rector of St. Alban's Episcopal in Northwest Washington. "If something happens ... and your world is shaking, you reach for something that is not supposed to shake." But he adds, "You can't sustain that. You can't stay that much on edge. People just don't live that way."

This is not to say the attacks didn't prompt a kind of soul-searching that may have lingering effects. Many religious leaders say they have noticed a subtler shift in some of their congregants' priorities. "I think people had to come to terms with their own mortality," says David Owens, pastor of Christ Church of Washington. And this confrontation with the uncertainty and fragility of life, posit spiritual leaders, has prompted people to seriously examine not just what matters most to them now (a new emphasis on family is often mentioned) but also the state of their eternal soul. Even so, talk of a massive, enduring overhaul of our relationship with God has all but vanished. Though many Washington-area houses of worship will hold memorial services to mark the anniversary of the attacks, religious leaders say they expect only slightly above-average attendance.

For better or worse, it seems that not even September 11 could upset the national "religious equilibrium" that Robert Wuthnow, director of Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion, laid out for The New York Times last November: one-quarter of the population devout, one-quarter secular, one-half mildly interested. As the Reverend Barnett notes, when crisis strikes, people always start out with the overwhelming sense that "nothing will ever be the same again." But now, just a few weeks before the first anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, St. Paul's uncrowded pews suggest that some things are the same already.

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.