It’s that time of year again – list time. Actually, it’s way past list time. The Religion Newswriters Association issued their list of the top ten religion stories of the year weeks ago – of course, as a result, they missed the Madoff scandal, the Rick Warren/invocation controversy, and the Gaza assault. Revealer issued lists of the year's best religion writing and the year's best religion books and movies. Altmuslim offered a list of the top ten good news stories of the year. And Religion Dispatches has a list of the top ten year-end religion news lists, including those from Time, Christianity Today, and the Onion.
For this first new year of this new blog, I’m going to offer ten reflections about religion news and the year gone by, with a few anticipatory remarks thrown in as well. This is just a sampling; feel free to suggest other topics in the comments field.
1. The year that is ending was marked, in particular, by the multiple battles for the hearts and minds of religious Americans in the presidential campaign. There was often less there than met the eye – evangelicals continued to vote in large numbers for the Republican Party, despite vigorous efforts to lure them away by Democrats, and Jews continued to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, despite an unending whispering campaign on the Internet attempting to associate Obama with Islam and critics of Israel. Mitt Romney’s much-anticipated speech on faith and public life was probably not a turning point in American political thinking. Social issues played only a minor role in a campaign dominated first by Iraq and then by the economy. And, to the extent that religion was part of the political story, it was almost always as something to criticize or mock – the preaching of Wright, Hagee and Pfleger, the beliefs and practices of Palin and Romney, the middle name of Obama, the politics of Warren.
2. As the new year begins, it appears that the biggest story for all religions is likely to be the economy, which will increase demand on religious organizations for solace and assistance at the same time that it depletes their endowments and threatens their fundraising.
3. In the Catholic Church, the biggest news of 2008 was the successful visit to the United States of Pope Benedict XVI, who benefitted enormously from low expectations and won high marks for his decision to meet in Washington with five Bostonians who had been sexually abused by priests. That meeting was put together by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who passed (without celebration) five eventful years as archbishop of Boston, seemingly settling into his role after surviving multiple controversies, moving the church’s longtime headquarters from Brighton to Braintree, completing a reshaping of his administrative team, improving the archdiocese’s grim financial picture and rescuing St. John’s Seminary from the brink of death. But O’Malley still faces enormous challenges; the diocese still spends more each year than it raises; five closed parishes remain occupied (for more than four years now!) by protesters; and the diocese’s accounts for clergy pensions and benefits are seriously underfunded. And the church remains, particularly in Massachusetts, at odds with the political culture, particularly over abortion and gay rights. So in 2009, I'll be watching how O’Malley handles the vigils and the pension funds; what he does to address the increasing priest shortage, most likely by asking more priests to oversee multiple parishes like the circuit riders of old; and how he manages critiquing a presidential administration supported by the vast majority of his parishioners. For the pope, a highlight of 2009 is expected to be a May visit to Israel, but that trip could be postponed or cancelled if the violence there continues.
4. Mainline Protestant denominations continued to be roiled by debates over homosexuality, and continued to grapple with declining participation and aging congregations. The split in the global Anglican Communion since the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire began to formalize in 2008, as conservatives announced that they were establishing a separate North American province that would compete with the existing Episcopal Church in the U.S. and Canada. African American Protestant churches reflected on the state of black liberation theology after the incendiary preaching by Jeremiah Wright (a pastor in the mainline United Church of Christ) called attention to the risks of rhetoric in the age of Youtube.
5. The evangelical Protestant world was in the spotlight throughout the election, as the Democratic Party attempted, with little measurable success, to break the strong relationship between evangelicalism and Republicanism. But evangelical politics are clearly in flux – polls show younger evangelicals interested in a broader array of issues than their elders. And the tension was on display in awkward ways; the National Association of Evangelicals ousted a longtime long official, Rich Cizik, whose open attitude toward global warming and gay relationships caused some on the right to question his orthodoxy. And the flap over Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation reminded both evangelicals and Democrats that engagement between the two will be fraught with complexity.
6. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2008 brought an end to the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose candidacy went further than that of any of the Mormons who have previously sought the nation’s highest office, but also called attention to a deep streak of anti-Mormonism in American culture, particularly among evangelical Protestants. The year also saw Mormons in the midst of a controversy over Proposition 8, the measure that would overturn same-sex marriage in California. Mormons, acting at their church’s urging, gave millions to the campaign, and the church was targeted by protesters after the measure passed. Locally, Mormons continued their institutional growth in eastern Massachusetts; eight years after building a huge temple on Belmont Hill, the LDS church this year broke ground for a new stake center in East Cambridge and announced plans to build a new chapel (being contested by neighbors) in Brookline.
7. For Jews, much of the year’s biggest news was concentrated at the end of the year, as multiple Jewish foundations and individuals lost millions of dollars in the alleged Ponzi scheme overseen by one of the community’s own; an investor named Bernard L. Madoff. And the Israeli assault on Gaza, in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, brought renewed attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to significant concern about Israel’s conduct by a variety of governments and groups. There was also the immigration raid on the kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which has intensified a growing discussion about what relationship, if any, there should be between ethics and kashrut. Locally, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies offered a new plan for the Jewish community, which, as it turns out, called for intensified defense of Israel; the Jewish community locally also decided to close its community center on the South Shore. In 2009, watch for a potential consolidation of Jewish nonprofits as the economy and the Madoff scandal take their toll, and also keep an eye on how the Jewish community manages interfaith relations given the increasing criticism of Israel from other faith groups.
8. For Muslims, the year brought ongoing tension over the place of Islam in the West, as American Muslims continued to make incremental political gains, but were largely ignored by an Obama campaign wary of associating with an unpopular group. The use of terror by some Muslims – most recently the attacks in Mumbai – continues to pose a challenge to those who proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace. The Middle East crisis also looms large for American Muslims, who are attempting to persuade American policymakers to criticize Israel’s actions in Gaza. Many Muslims seized as a sign of hope Colin Powell’s denunciation, on Meet the Press, of the idea that there is something wrong with being a Muslim. And in Boston, 2008 brought the soft opening of the much-debated and long-delayed new Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury, which is expected to fully open in 2009.
9. There were several notable deaths in the world of religion in 2008. Cardinal Avery Dulles, the scion of a famous, and Protestant, American family, who came to Catholicism by the banks of the Charles River, and who became the only American theologian ever named a cardinal by Rome, died in December at 90. Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, revered by Mormons as prophet, seer and revelator, and a descendant of the last governor of Plymouth Colony, died in January at 97. Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexy II died in December at 79; Warith Deen Mohammed, the African-American Muslim leader, died in September at 74.
10. The business of religion journalism, like the rest of the journalism business, is, to put it mildly, in flux. The amount of space and resources committed to religion journalism by the mainstream media continued to dwindle in 2008, and several veteran religion writers around the country were laid off or bought out.
At the Globe, the powers-that-be retired the paper’s longtime religion column, Spiritual Life, as part of a budget-cutting effort, and launched this blog, Articles of Faith, in an effort to better engage with that segment of our growing on-line audience that is interested in religion. The blog has grown rapidly – thanks to Sarah Palin, the abortion issue, and a variety of other controversies, we had nearly 200,000 page views in November. I am grateful to all of you (well, most of you) who visited, bookmarked the site, subscribed to the RSS feed, and took the time to post comments or send notes as I experiment with this forum, trying to figure out what features and what types of posts are most useful, how best to balance the kinds of hot-button items that generate clicks with posts about news and culture that can be traffic-deadening, and also how best to balance blogging with reporting and writing stories.
This will almost certainly be my last blog post of the year; I’ve just arrived in California for a vacation, and, if the news and my own temperament allow me to tear myself away from the keyboard, Articles of Faith will be on hiatus for a bit. But please feel free to post your own thoughts about trends in the world of religion as comments on this blog, or shoot me an e-mail with suggestions for religion stories you think the Globe should pursue in 2009.
And, to one and all, Happy New Year.
(Photo, by Lai Seng Sin/AP, shows a New Year's celebration today in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.)