September 5, 2002

One year later: September 11 and the Internet

Part 5. Keeping the Faith Online After September 11

Key Findings

By Elena Larsen
Research fellow, Pew Internet & American Life Project

A “Webscape” of examples for this section can be found at:
http://september11.archive.org/webscape/lar/

This paper examines the many ways religious groups addressed the crisis of September 11 on their Web sites.  Denominational sites were chosen to represent religious sites since they provide resources to clergy and congregant alike.  In all, the faiths of over 100 million Americans are represented in the sites included in this study.

  • The most common needs addressed on the 22 denominational sites reviewed were the physical and financial needs of  the immediate victims of the attacks and their families.  Notably, the denominations already had their own standing relief mechanisms in place, so were able to organize their own relief efforts.  Thus, none linked potential contributors to the Red Cross. 
  • Denominations used their Web sites to respond to the needs of members themselves. The most extensive collections of links available on the denominational sites sought to provide spiritual and emotional assistance to members dealing with the aftermath of the attacks. 
  • Some sites provided linked sections where visitors could get a brief introduction to Islam. 
  • Questions that, for many, had been mere theological discussions, such as why does God permit evil, became pained cries.  Such questions were not addressed substantively by the denominations on their Web sites.

Background

Religious organizations touch the lives of nearly nine of every ten Americans.54  In the wake of the September 11 attacks, as people clung to their sets awaiting precious drops of information, religious offices and clergy stepped up into their own roles.  They had to provide the strength to help people withstand the shock and horror of what had happened.  They had to support victims, members, and community leadership.  They sought to direct anger and fear away from thought of indiscriminate revenge and toward rebuilding the lives that had been shattered.  They were faced with the hardest questions, ones not pressed upon the government or the press. Where was God?  How could such evil be allowed?  Why NOT seek the harshest vengeance?

To meet these needs, churches and temples opened their doors to offer water and phones to people fleeing Ground Zero.  Around the country, they kept their doors open for all-night vigils.  They checked on members.  Many denominations used their web sites to address these urgent needs and questions.  This paper examines the many ways religious groups addressed the crisis on their Web sites.

Note: This paper does not attempt to evaluate the response of various denominations to September 11 according to their Internet actions.  Some denominations rely far more on the Internet than do others, and incorporate more features into their Web sites.  The fact that one denomination may have addressed more needs online than another does NOT mean that it was more responsive to the needs of its members.  Different denominations have different organizational structures for their own governance, and their own ways of handling crises within their communities.  The Internet is just one of many tools they use.

Research sample

For this study, sites were that reflected communal, rather than individual, responses. Thus, religiously-oriented Web sites created by individuals are not included. Nor are Web sites created by individual churches.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project, in its study of congregational Web sites (“Wired Churches, Wired Temples”  (http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=28) found that congregations overwhelmingly rely on volunteers to maintain their sites, and have difficulty keeping them up to date.  In view of those findings, it seemed unlikely that individual congregations would employ their Web sites in their response to the September 11 events.

Denominational offices, however, provide resources to clergy and congregant alike.  They have their own organizations for relief efforts, and connections with international organizations that often provide information to their own press services.  The best organized can provide an alternative voice to government and commercial media, and deliver resources available quickly from no other source.  Therefore, denominational sites were chosen.55

There are literally scores, perhaps hundreds, of Christian denominations in the United States.  By no means do all of them have denominational Web sites. The sites here are those of denominations with membership of over 500,000, as identified by the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/aris_index.htm).  In addition, the sample included sites that represented Judaism, Islam, Unitarian Universalism, and earth-centered religions in the United States. 

The impressions of the chosen sites appeared in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001.  The archive did not have readable impressions available for all denominations.  In all, the faiths of over 100 million Americans are represented in the sites included in this study.56  The denominations include: Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Lutheran (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), Pentecostal, Episcopal, Judaism, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, United Church of Christ, Islam (including Nation of Islam), Seventh-Day Adventist, Eastern Orthodox, Assemblies of God, Unitarian Universalist, Church of the Nazarene, and Wiccan/Pagan/Druid.

Including September 11 content

Of the 22 Web sites reviewed, all had some degree of content reflecting the attacks in the weeks following September 11. On some sites, references to the attacks were minimal.  The Web site for the Church of Latter Day Saints, for instance, primarily referenced the national memorial service it held on September 14, 2001.  The producers of other denominational sites created  entire sections devoted to September 11 and maintained relevant resource links for months, often using striking graphics to keep links to those sections visible.  Just one example can be seen at archived sites of the Episcopal Church in the USA, at http://web.archive.org/web/20010923004842/http://ecusa.anglican.org.

These dedicated sections addressed a variety of purposes, from meeting the material needs of victims and families to the psychological needs of members throughout the country.  The following sections describe how denominations used their sites to respond to these needs.

Helping the people of New York and Washington

The most common needs addressed on the 22 denominational sites reviewed were the physical and financial needs of  the immediate victims of the attacks and their families.  Fourteen sites told viewers where they could send money to help with relief efforts.  In addition, the United Methodist Church announced on its site a separate scholarship fund started for dependents of victims (http://web.archive.org/web/20011009030543/umc.org/usattack/). The sites of the United Church of Christ and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations had the capacity to accept electronic donations, a feature generally absent from most denominational sites.

Notably, all the relief funds were denominationally operated; none, for example, linked potential contributors to the Red Cross.  The denominations already had in place the structure to collect and administer relief funds, so they could quickly respond to the financial needs engendered by the attacks. 

Perhaps the most sophisticated Internet-enabled relief strategy was that shown on the Assemblies of God Web site.  It allowed visitors to register on an inter-denominational database for volunteers willing to provide long-term relief.  “The immediate outpouring of support since Tuesday, September 11, 2001, has produced more short-term volunteers than the relief efforts can handle. Our goal is to establish a long-term strategy, support network and recovery program in the months, even years to come.” (http://web.archive.org/web/20011012112248/www.ag.org/top/operation_hope/volunteer_db_instructions.cfm)  The volunteer form allowed individuals to offer their professional skills as clergy, construction workers, medical workers, counselors and social workers, computer programmers or Web designers, lawyers or accountants.  Those without a profession could offer prayer support, foster care, office assistance, or other services.  Volunteers could also note how much notice they needed before they could appear to serve, and the time period in which they could serve.

Coping after the crisis

Never in our worst nightmares did we imagine that we would be witnessing such a horrendous event and human tragedy inflicted on our American friends. We care for every life and we pray for all those who are mourning the loss of loved ones taken away by this indiscriminate act of organized terror. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all.

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem
Palestine

We forcefully denounce this inhuman and unjustified action, and we join our sufferings with the American people. On behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, ordained and lay, we assure the President, the government and the people of the United States of our ceaseless prayers, calling upon Almighty God to comfort the hearts of the bereaved for the loss of their dear ones, and beseeching Him to heal all the injured in body, mind or-spirit.

RT. Rev. Riah Aby El-Asel
Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem

After providing an outlet for members to help others, denominations used their Web sites to respond to the needs of members themselves.  Pastoral letters of concern, comfort, and hope appeared on almost all of the major denominational Web sites.  Traditionally, such letters are often read in the congregational setting, and many probably were.  But denominational leaders used their sites not only to send their own letters directly to their members, but to pass on messages from clergy and churches around the world.  The two letters shown above, selected especially for coming from the Middle East, are just a few of many that were linked to the American Baptist Web site (http://web.archive.org/web/20011009232933/http://www.abc-usa.org/). 

And help went beyond words of condolence.  The most extensive collections of links available on the denominational sites sought to provide spiritual and emotional assistance to members dealing with the aftermath of the attacks.  Many of these resources were religious in nature.  Prayers, hymns, and liturgies were provided to help shaken communities come together to pray and seek comfort and guidance.  Links to scriptural texts were made to help people understand and reassure themselves about the promises of God.

In addition, the denominational sites provided copious resources from psychologists, educators, and government agencies to help people cope with fear and stress, and to provide practical advice on emergency preparedness.  In particular, they provided material to help parents talk to and comfort their children.  Denominational sites also provided resources to clergy who might be facing unprecedented demands from their congregations.  The United Church of Christ was unique in providing material to help people care for families coping with financial crises that may have arisen after the attacks (http://web.archive.org/web/20011117004534/www.ucc.org/911/mailing10.pdf).  Some denominational sites addressed the mixed set of needs experienced by members, providing counseling resources while encouraging individuals to remain active in and draw spiritual strength from their own congregations. 

Understanding Islam

The attacks underscored Americans’ general ignorance about Islam, and reinforced the worst stereotypes held by many.  The Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist, Greek Orthodox, and United Church of Christ Web sites all provided linked sections where visitors could get a brief introduction to Islam.  Generally, the content on these sections emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace and submission to Allah.  They also pointed out that it venerates Jesus among its prophets.  A few had a special section on the meaning of jihad, all of which rejected its interpretation as a call to armed warfare.

Islam.org also provided visitors with an introduction to the tenets of its faith.  Its front page, on September 16, included a section on building better relations between Christians and Muslims.  “With over 1 billion followers each, Islam and Christianity are major religions that influence the thinking and values of over 40% of the World population. There is sufficient common ground for Muslims and Christians to understand each other and move together in the Path of Truth, Peace and Justice.” (http://web.archive.org/web/20010916222047/http://islam.org/)

These same organizations, along with some others, used their sites to encourage members to support Muslims in their own communities.  The Union of American Hebrew Congregations expressed outrage at attacks on Arab and Muslim Americans on their site (http://web.archive.org/web/20011031214334/uahc.org/pr/2001/010913.html).  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provided on their Web site a help sheet for discussing Islam with youth (http://web.archive.org/web/20011114132958/www.elca.org/dcm/youth/resource/helpsheets/muslim.html) and a sample letter of solidarity that congregations could send to local mosques (http://web.archive.org/web/20011120111503/www.elca.org/dcs/disaster/solidarity.pdf). The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) urged support also for Sikhs, who were likely to be targeted by angry Americans simply because they wear headdresses. Their site (http://web.archive.org/web/20010919215905/www.uua.org/uuawo/alerts/reachingout.html) included a section entitled “Four Ways to Support Muslims and Arab Americans” – one of those ways being to be a voice of reason in Internet chat rooms where other participants were calling for violent response. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,57 United Methodist Church,58 Islam.org,59 United Church of Christ,60 and American Baptist Churches61 all promoted funds to help Afghan citizens affected by years of hardship and the American-led war.

Understanding and response

Leaders of religious groups faced some of the thorniest questions in the aftermath of September 11 – arguably tougher even than those addressed to the U.S. government.  Questions that, for many, had been mere theological discussions, such as why does God permit evil, became pained cries. Furthermore, though religious frameworks were often used to call for “justice” and not “vengeance,” many could not see what “justice” for such horrific acts would be.  What “just” response could atone for the brutal murder of thousands of innocents?  Where was God when this was happening, and would He passively sit by and let this happen again?

Such questions were not addressed substantively by the denominations on their Web sites.

Within days of the attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson aroused fury across the nation by blaming gays, lesbians, pagans, feminists, abortionists, the ACLU, and the federal courts (among others) for removing God’s protection from the country, and allowing the attacks to occur.  The backlash was immediate from both President Bush and the press.  Only one of the denominational sites reviewed, the Seventh Day Adventists’, posted a direct rebuttal asserting that the attacks were not God’s punishment (http://web.archive.org/web/20011017101555/www.adventist.org/news/data/2001/08/1000824576/index.html.en). 

This statement was the closest any of the 22 denominational sites came to providing a direct explanation for the attacks.  They were more likely to address the question of evil generally, and to accept its existence as an unavoidable component of a free-will world.  But they also see the opportunity for people to use their free will to let God’s will rise even in horrendous tragedy.  The firemen, policeman, and volunteers who arrived from all over the country to help their fellow citizens were shown as the face of God in the crisis.

Without a solid framework explaining evil, the sites were generally also vague about the proper U.S. policy response.  While individuals were offered the opportunity to help those who had been hurt, there was little offered to guide them in their contemplations of the proper response to the attackers.

The United Church of Christ site linked to an article “Is there a theological response to terrorism?” (http://web.archive.org/web/20011117011125/www.ucc.org/911/092101a.htm) that discussed religious thought on dealing with violent aggressors.  It outlined Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologies of war.  The minister Louis Farrakhan, in his address posted on the Nation of Islam home page, noted that both Christianity and Islam have rules on “just war,” that lay out permissible causes of and conduct for warfare.  A few of the denominational sites essentially appealed to the just war tradition when they reluctantly agreed that military action would be needed against in order to save innocent lives from further terrorist attacks.  They generally appealed to the President to limit military attacks and minimize casualties among innocent civilians. 

A more common theme among the sites was a call for justice rather than war.  But few of the sites elucidated that theme to help an angry populace understand what it would mean. Many people wondered if the hijackers were already dead, what justice could be afforded?

The United Methodist Web site provided uniquely well-organized assistance in this regard.  Its page on official denominational statements, linked to its September 11 pages, provides a long list of principles including those on war, terrorism, and justice (http://web.archive.org/web/20010926212323/infoserv.umc.org/faq/nationaltragedypage2.htm).  An essay on Restorative Justice, for example, promotes of vision of justice that focuses on healing communities rather than merely punishing wrongdoers.  While the essay was written well before the events of September 11, it provides the groundwork for seeking a justice other than war.  One of its mandates is that the nation examine itself critically to understand what actions it had taken to ground violent emotion against it.  However, the principles are worded in general terms, and do not actively call people together for reflection and action.

The United Church of Christ’s invitation to members, “Blessed are the peacemakers: What does in mean to be a Just-Peace church in times like these?” reflects the way one denomination invited its members to grapple with the issue (http://www.ucc.org/jwm/911b.htm).  Those who clicked through the section were invited to share their thoughts on applying principles of just peace to addressing the attacks.  There were no answers provided, just an opportunity to seek them.

Conclusions

Religious denominations of the United States strove to meet the needs of both victims and their own members in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  They used their Web sites to help meet physical and financial, spiritual and emotional needs. Their Web sites were employed in attempts to keep people together, to grieve with them, to encourage them to rebuild their lives and the lives of their neighbors.  But the sites did not provide pat answers to the hard questions raised.  Denominational sites carried little content in the first few weeks after the attacks to help their members address or even ask questions of what response was appropriate, how peace could be built, and how the United States had brought such wrath on itself.  The adage “think globally, act locally” was manifested on those sites that sought to help their members better understand Islam, and to encourage them to reach out in friendship to their Muslim neighbors.  But there was little help for those who wanted to act globally, or at least influence policy decisions.  Those denominational sites that called for justice often lacked the resources to help members understand, envision and work towards it.

  1. http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html – religions
  2. Note: I use the word “denomination” in a sense broader than its application to Christian groups. Rather, I use it in terms of an organization to which communities of worshipers, or congregations, see as a parent organization. Thus, the Nation of Islam web site is classed as a denominational site because it represents Nation of Islam communities across the country.
  3. Even so, there are several religious groups that are significant in number but not represented. At least 2.5 million Americans are non-denominational Christians, who do not have a single “denominational” site to attend their needs as a group. Also, this sample does not account for religious fringe groups with hate agendas.
  4. http://web.archive.org/web/20011120103803/www.elca.org/dgm/disaster/afghan2.html
  5. http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor/loveupdate/afghan.stm
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/20011013210840/www.islamicity.com/contribute/afghanistan/
  7. http://web.archive.org/web/20011117014827/www.ucc.org/disaster/d110201b.htm
  8. http://web.archive.org/web/20011020052442/www.abc-oghs.org/world_relief_news.htm