Melissa Matthes on Sermons after Tragedies
Date: September 8th, 2013

With the 12th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks upon us, we examine how clergy respond to national tragedies in their sermons.  What does a priest or pastor say to a congregation looking for answers to an unimaginable and shocking event?  Are there any common themes that emerge among clergy when confronted with national tragedy, or are their responses conditioned by the specific context.  To address these questions, we invited Prof. Melissa Matthes – associate professor of government and the humanities at the US Coast Guard Academy – to talk about her research project examining sermons following such momentous events.  She has been reading sermons that were delivered in the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (1963) and Martin Luther King (1968), the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995), and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (2001).

We begin with Dr. Matthes’s account of how she came to undertake this study, which was prompted by her personal experience with the events of 9/11 given that her husband was working in NYC at the time and that she knew several victims of the tragedy.  Melissa attended services at her local parish within 48 hours of 9/11 and talked with a number of other colleagues who did as well.  The fact that people all around the country flocked to houses of worship almost immediately is an indication of how important religious denominations remain as part of our civic education.  Melissa notes that people turn towards the clergy in times of crisis for answers on how to make sense of what seems unimaginable.

Interestingly, Melissa noted her disappointment with the relative lack of mourning for the victims of 9/11 in many of the sermons at that time.  This prompts an interesting discussion about the role of public mourning and grief in times of tragedy.  Prof. Matthes references the famous Greek play Antigone and notes how Adolph Hitler not only banned that piece of literature but also prohibited German citizens from attending large scale public funerals for fear that they would be a rallying point for political opposition.  Tony notes how important funerals have been in recent years with the publicly expressed grief surrounding death of a Tunisian street vendor setting off what we today call the “Arab Spring.”

Dr. Matthes then details the nature of her study, explaining the choice of crises she examined, how she selected the sermons, and the questions she set out to examine.  Primarily, Melissa wanted to investigate the nature of public mourning, how church-state relations were viewed by the clergy during moments of crisis, and how the clergy conceived of patriotism.  Tony then asks a series of questions about whether many of these sermons – dating back to Pearl Harbor and ending with 9/11 – contain common theological themes or references to biblical passages.  He also inquires whether she noted denominational differences in the nature of the sermons or whether or not there was a call to be find more ecumenical common ground in our nation’s responses.

We then walk through several of Dr. Matthes’s case studies, with particular emphasis on Pearl Harbor, the JFK and MLK assassinations, and September 11.  Interestingly, we discover that the sermons immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor do not contain “rally around the flag” messages, but instead emphasize the need to promote a peaceful response.  In part, Melissa argues that this emphasis is due to clergy feeling somewhat betrayed by their close association with the US government during World War I and a desire to stand back from the government at the time, much to the dismay of President Franklin Roosevelt.  With respect to the two assassinations occurring in the 1960s, Melissa notes that John Kennedy’s death was conceived as an act of martyrdom and in Christ-like terms, a surprising response given that Kennedy was not necessarily all that popular just prior to his death.  Moreover, she observed that many clergy tended to blame society for “pulling the trigger,” and use JFK’s death as a moment of national reflection.  The response to Martin Luther King’s assassination was different.  Surprisingly, far fewer sermons were saved following that event (as compared to the Kennedy assassination where people actually sent sermons to the JFK presidential library).  Melissa notes a sense of “national resignation” amongst the clergy following the death of MLK and also notes how the response of black clergy differed from white pastors.

In terms of the response to September 11, and in much contrast to the much-analogized attack on Pearl Harbor, clergy responded with sermons that advocated “lining up with the state” to fix the problem and then to move forward.  Gone, to a significant extent, was the sense of public mourning that had accompanied earlier tragedies.  We finish with Melissa’s broad reflections on her study.  She is most impressed with the fact of how relevant churches remain in the life of the U.S. even while participation in institutional religion seems to be on the wane.  Recorded: September 8, 2011.


Melissa Matthes’s bio at the US Coast Guard Academy.


Ron Mock on Pacificism, War, and Terrorism.




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