18 A ll Americans, and probably most people
L .around the world, can remember exactly what they were doing at the moment they heard that terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People in New York City and Washington, D. C., were especially devastated.
As New Yorkers searched for news of missing friends and family members, they held up photos, and then taped thousands of pictures of the missing to building walls. They lit candles and held prayer vigils in parks for their missing loved ones. Strangers united in overwhelming grief held onto each other, praying and crying. A young flight attendant in New York was asked by friends in Europe what it was like in the city. They assumed that New Yorkers must be very angry. They were wrong, she told them. The overwhelming feeling in New York was sadness, a deep, terrible sadness that hung in the air. People spoke quietly and one could feel the heavy sense of loss. Everyone knew someone who was touched by the tragedy.
Immediately, there was an outpouring of love, charity, and patriotism around the country. So many people volunteered to help that officials had to limit the numbers. Millions of dollars were raised for the families of the victims, and Americans felt a huge surge of pride and love for their country. Eighty percent of them displayed the American flag—in the windows of their houses, on their cars, even on their clothing. People hung flags and put up signs on highway overpasses and bridges. And over and over, crowds spontaneously sang “God Bless America,” a patriotic song that is more popular (and much easier to sing) than the national anthem, along with “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
This mixture of religion and patriotism is what some scholars have called the “national religion” of the United States. The roots of the national religion go back to colonial times. In the countries from which the American colonists emigrated, the dominant values of the nation were often supported by an organized national church. Although Americans made certain that no organized national church would exist in their young country, they have over the years developed a number of informal practices which combine national patriotism with religion. The main function of this national religion is to provide support for the dominant values of the nation, and comfort in times of grief. Thus, it does in an informal and less organized way what nationally organized churches did for European nations in earlier times.
Some observers of American society believe that the various practices that are called the national religion can have harmful effects, however. Sometimes these practices can help to create a climate in which disagreement with current national practices is discouraged or not tolerated. There have been times when citizens have disagreed with their government’s decision to wage war, for example, and other Americans accused them of being unpatriotic. This happened during the war in Vietnam, when protesters were told, “America—love it, or leave it.” A similar division of opinion occurred over the U. S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003.