National Tragedies Still Call Forth Sermons. But Their Tone Has Changed.

A new history argues that Protestant ministers have traded prophetic introspection for triumphalist civil religion.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Americans relied on certain rituals of mourning to manage the shock of what had occurred. Sixty years later, after planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, they turned to those rituals once more.

Desperate to make sense of the tragedy, Americans consumed all manner of media coverage. Within hours of the attack, political leaders reassured the public that the nation would remain strong, and then identified military action as the primary mechanism of retribution. And Americans went to church because, as Melissa Matthes explains in When Sorrow Comes: The Power of Sermons from Pearl Harbor to Black Lives Matter, “gathering in grief at a worship space after violence seems to be a quintessentially American practice.”

Americans find comfort in familiarity during tragedies, so it is not surprising that Matthes, a professor of government at the United States Coast Guard Academy, discovered patterns of consolation in the thousands of sermons she read in preparation for her book. But Matthes’s work is not solely about the words of comfort spoken during crisis points. Her book stands out because she explains how Protestant ministers adapted their rhetorical strategies to respond to significant challenges that they faced as the religious and political landscape shifted after World War II.

Disparities in how ministers reacted to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are particularly instructive. Following the Japanese attack in Hawaii, Protestant clergy called for introspection, specifically asking congregants to consider how they had helped create a world where such violence was possible. Careful to maintain their moral voice, Matthes argues, most Protestant ministers refused …

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