SEPTEMBER 24, 2001
The Voices of Our Young
-- Martin E. Marty
Whoever goes sighting religion in American public life is likely to cast a camera eye on many a silver-crowned head. One takes for granted that participants in town meetings, forums, ceremonies, task forces, interest groups, lecture audiences, church discussions of public issues places where those who show they care often gather -- are, if not seniors, at least well along in the passages of life.
Only a celebrity from the world of athletics or entertainment, or someone who brings a reputation for outrageousness is assured a youthful crowd on any topic that isn't clearly a "youth issue." Professors, researchers, scholars, and intellectuals, who on occasion present public lectures on campuses, may draw sizable crowds. But usually these "town and gown" situations draw town seniors and gown faculty more than town youth and gown students. Those of you who have attended such forums can attest to this.
Will things be different in our drastically altered situation? Student associations at colleges across the nation have sponsored candlelight vigils, and campus chapels were full after September 11. Counseling of young people by chaplains and pastors led them to see again how undifferentiated by age many concerns are. ABC News devoted an extended segment to answering questions about the tragedy posed, however shyly, by people as young as pre-teens. All of this is evidence that the young share the terrors, experience the grief, and need to find resolution and hope as much as their elders.
Will the desire of our young to voice their feelings last? What of our willingness to listen? So many events have been canceled and so many travel schedules interrupted that we cannot report on many field experiences this early. Let me be personal for a moment, then, and remark on the character of my first excursion to a campus after September 11. I traveled to the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana for the 2001 Mortenson Distinguished Lecture, hosted and staged by the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs there.
The central question was an enduring one -- one at which I've pulled, and with which I've wrestled for some years -- "What is it about religion that people can both heal and kill in its name?" The widespread awareness that terrorists act in the name of God, while those who stand against terrorism often do so as well, made my latest attempt at answering this question sound relevant. An overflow crowd of a sort unfamiliar to non-celebrity and, I hope, not-outrageous professors turned up. At the reception after the talk, I heard no question more frequently than, "Did you notice how many students showed up, and how animated their discussions were?"
Can this kind of phenomenon endure? Will the young see that their role in understanding our strange new world, and the place of religion in it, is crucial and demanding? Will they continue to see that this is the case a month, a year, or five years removed from this tragedy? They have to live longest with terrorism. They have the most to hope for in healing. They have the heaviest investment in public life for the longer pull. The public needs their voice, and vice versa.