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The Top Stories in Religion and Politics in 2010 -- What They Mean, Why They Matter

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Journalists are making their lists and checking them twice in a post-Santa tradition that rewards both the naughty and nice by highlighting the major episodes of the past year, whether they were horrifying or edifying.

Religion writers are no different in this regard, and we had lots of material to work with.

The Religion Newswriters Association, which is the professional society for journalists covering the "God beat," has its own ranking of the Top 10 religion stories from 2010, which starts with the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque controversy that riveted attention during much of the electoral season, though for no apparent political reason.

Coming in No. 10 on the RNA list is the "de-Protestantization" of the Supreme Court, now composed of six Catholics and three Jews -- which sounds like the start of a bad joke. The real question is whether anyone will be laughing come the end of the next term, with critical rulings on health care reform and abortion and gay marriage in the offing.

In between, the secular decalogue of 2010 features entries on the pope and sex abuse, sex and religion, gay bullying and the rise of the tea party. Those stories made various other lists, too, though the rankings were often different.

For example, while RNA members had the faith-based response to the Haiti earthquake at No. 2, it finished No. 1 on the list compiled by editors at Christianity Today, the premier evangelical magazine. Terry Jones, the incendiary Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Koran, came in at No. 10 on the CT list, with other mentions for the evangelical environmental awakening after the BP oil disaster, a popular Christian folk musician coming out as a lesbian, and the role of American evangelicals in the anti-gay campaign in Uganda., a conservative Christian news service, also gave pride of place to the Haiti story, but highlighted the religious aspects of the dramatic miners' rescue in Chile as well. Crosswalk also listed ominous signs of persecution that were often underplayed in the press: the massacres and suppression of Christians in Iraq, the death sentence for a Christian woman in Pakistan accused of blasphemy, and the brutal killings of Christian aid workers in Afghanistan. And Crosswalk also cited churches facing "the reality of gay bullying."

As for the top religion newsmaker of 2010, RNA members picked Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, with Pope Benedict XVI, Haiti relief workers, and Sarah Palin trailing behind.

The Huffington Post's left-leaning stable of religion writers also tabbed Abdul Rauf as the top religion newsmaker, along with his wife, Daisy Khan, with the pope coming in second. No. 3 was Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda, who has risked persecution for standing up for the rights of gays and lesbians. In a similar vein, the HuffPo writers lauded Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, who lent critical support to the Obama health care reform plan at a key moment -- thereby earning the slings and arrows of the outraged church hierarchy.

Glenn Beck was ranked No. 5, thanks to his open-air tent revival on the Mall last August, an event that seemed to position the Fox News personality -- who is a Mormon -- as the new leader of Christian conservatism.

So what does it all mean? Here are a few thoughts about the top stories and trends of 2010:

The tea party huffs, the religious right puffs

Tea partiers and Christian conservatives have a broad overlap in their constituencies, but it is the tea party that is driving the traffic in the right lane. Social conservatives had to scramble all year to hitch their wagon to the Tea Party Ferrari, and they can only pray that their issues get some traction with the more libertarian-minded folks in the next Congress. "I think we've had a sort of truce in the culture wars," Michael Barone, columnist for the Washington Examiner and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told journalists at a post-election powwow sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Barone was echoing the call last June by Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, for a truce on social issues, a statement that hurt Daniels' presidential prospects. But such a truce may be worse news for social conservatives, who need those battles to rally the troops.

Moreover, the tea party dynamic is also a growing factor within denominations, as churchgoers say they want to keep their offerings closer to home rather than sending them to "bloated bureaucracies" at denominational headquarters. But that trend, combined with the recession, has also come back to bite the religious right. Focus on the Family, for example, once the engine of Christian conservatism, was forced to lay off 110 employees in 2010.

Finally, as authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell show in their magisterial new study of faith in the United States, "American Grace," demographics are not on the side of Christian conservatives. Political maneuverings and harsh rhetoric by many Christian activists are turning young people away from old-time moral majoritarians, and more young adults identify as religious unaffiliated than as Christian conservatives, with the trend lines moving in a secular direction.

American exceptionalism is the American religion

What Glenn Beck's Altar-Call-on-the-Mall really showed was that American exceptionalism -- the belief that America is a divinely inspired nation of chosen people with a God-given duty to be a light unto the rest of the world -- is the reigning civil religion, and a real religion for many. It didn't matter that Beck was a convert to Mormonism, which is viewed as a heresy to traditional Christians. He preached the gospel they wanted to hear.

Indeed, polls showed that tea party supporters were more likely than self-identified Christian conservatives to say that "America has always been and is currently a Christian nation," even though they are less likely than Christian conservatives to go to church.

"Religiously-based American exceptionalism is alive and well and amazingly pervasive," William Galston of the Brookings Institution said in a post-election presentation to reporters. As a result, he said, "denying or appearing to deny American exceptionalist claims comes at some political risk."

That risk became a reality for Barack Obama in 2010. A growing minority of Americans (as many as one in five) believe the president is a Muslim and not a Christian, and according to Galston's research, just over half saw the president's religious views as different from their own, while 40 percent saw his religious views as similar to their own.

Likewise, a Gallup poll just before Christmas showed that 80 percent of Americans believe that "the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world, but only 58 percent think Obama shares that view."

Islam is not an American religion . . . yet

Islam was the boogeyman of American political life in 2010 more than at any time since 9/11, an extraordinary development given the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the thousands of American casualties suffered at the hands of Islamic fighters.

Part of this may be due to the absence of George W. Bush, whose insistence that America was not at war with Islam for years helped calm the anxieties of his co-religionists on the evangelical right. So the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan became "the Ground Zero mosque," and voters in Oklahoma passed a referendum barring Islamic Shariah law from usurping U.S. or state laws, even though it couldn't do so. Mosques that had been planned without a hitch were suddenly the focal point of anti-Muslim protests and a target for violence. And a feckless pastor from a tiny Gainesville, Fla., church who promised to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11 became an international celebrity and diplomatic and military threat.

Like homosexuals, Muslims filled the archetypal role of the scapegoat all too well in 2010, but there were few indications that Americans were moving toward accepting Muslims as quickly as they are in accepting gays. Americans increasingly believed that Islam was by its nature incompatible with American beliefs and ideals.

"This issue is getting politicized in a way that should get our attention, and that we may want to worry about," Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Galston's research partner at Brookings, told the Ethics and Public Policy retreat. That may be an understatement.

On the other hand, many noted the uncanny historical parallels between contemporary anti-Islam fervor and the anti-Catholic prejudice of the 19th and early 20th century, which eventually dissipated. "There may be lessons for American Muslims in the experience of the Catholic community and its ultimate success in breaking down barriers and entering the mainstream of American political life," Dionne and Galston wrote.

And what could be more mainstream than winning the Miss USA crown, as Rima Fakih, a Muslim of Lebanese descent, did this year?

Who is pro-life now?

Barack Obama swept into office in 2008 as the pro-life movement's worst nightmare. Obama's priority was going to be enacting the dreaded Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would enshrine an abortion free-for-all into law, and he was going to roll back the ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions in the latter stages of pregnancy.

Well, it turned out FOCA was a mirage and Obama now says he thinks restrictions on late-term abortions are legit. Moreover, he managed to pass a health care law that will provide greater and better coverage for pregnant women and young children than ever before -- a dream come true for abortion opponents. Or not. The professional pro-life camp argued that Obamacare would in fact provide billions in taxpayer dollars for abortions, a claim rejected by most health care experts. And pro-life Democrats who were key to passing health care reform -- as well as to the Democrats' electoral successes in recent years -- got hammered in November's vote.

As a result, congressional Democrats are more uniformly pro-choice than ever, and Republicans more pro-life, with compromise another mirage in the distance.

The question is will abortion matter at all given the public's -- and Congress' -- mono-focus on the economy, which Jean Bethke Elshtain, a conservative political philosopher at the University of Chicago Divinity School, agreed was the overriding issue in November. "Religion took a back seat, as did so many of the social issues that so irrevocably divide us," Elshtain told a Commonweal-sponsored event on "Politics, Faith, and the Midterm Elections."

Gay rights are not so wrong

Even as Republicans continue to own the pro-life issue, and as Americans continue to frown on the prevalence of abortion, social conservatives are losing the war against gay rights. The reversal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy was just one sign of the times, though don't expect culture warriors like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council to wave the white flag any time soon. "Family issues" -- namely opposition to abortion and homosexuality -- remain the glue that cements religious conservatives and rallies them to the polls in greater numbers than progressives and more secular Americans.

But there are signs the battle over homosexuality is dividing conservatives, and the demographics and public opinion polls are clearly moving toward a greater acceptance of gay rights, even gay marriage, all along the religious spectrum. That trend is occurring, however, at the same time that many conservative Christian activists and denominations are portraying abortion and gay marriage as two sides of the same pro-life coin.

That will eventually be bad news for the religious right. Somewhere down the road, as Putnam and Campbell write, "homosexuality will become less attractive as a wedge issue in politics and will likely cease to be a potent issue at all."

Sex is easy, economics is hard

But how far down the road, no one wants to say. And with good reason.

The trenchant and enchanting theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that American Christians love to focus on sex because they know precisely when they've broken a sexual commandment -- you either have or you haven't -- whereas it's really hard to figure out exactly where the line is on economics. Jesus said sell everything and give it to the poor. But what does that mean, really? How much should we pay in taxes? How much should we give to charity? When is it enough, economically speaking?

With our economic travails more complex than ever and the solutions harder than ever, keeping voters' minds on sex is probably not a bad strategy, at least when campaign time rolls around.

As theologian Vincent Miller has argued, Americans feel so powerless about economic trends that they can take out their frustration by voting against something simple and clear, such as granting rights to homosexuals, for example. "These issues provided a clear experience of political agency," Miller says. "People's votes made a difference. It's been decades since voters were offered a similarly clear and specific opportunity to impact the economy in the ballot box."

That is perhaps a fancier way of restating Obama's infamous 2008 observation that working-class voters frustrated with economic conditions "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." But given all the other silly issues that distracted voters -- and journalists -- this year, the theory can't be dismissed.

The Catholic Church never gets rid of anything -- not even scandals

The Roman Catholic Church manages to incorporate, co-opt or outlast almost everything history has thrown at her in the last two millennia, which is part of her genius. It is also part of her burden, however, as we have seen in the never-ending saga of the sexual abuse crisis.

Revelations continued to churn out and church officials continued to open their mouths before engaging their brains, and the new round of scandals in this old story reached as far as the papal apartments. In a vivid summation just before Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI told the Roman Curia -- his administration -- that the church "must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. . . . We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen."

The answer to the question of what caused the abuse, Benedict suggested, was to be found largely in the hedonism of the 1960s and '70s and the materialism of today. But those factors are at best a partial explanation and unlikely to satisfy the media or millions of angry Catholics -- or to keep further missteps and revelations from cropping up in 2011.

On the other hand, the pope also made headlines for his statements published in November saying that condoms could be justified in some cases, such as in preventing the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS. Benedict's comments drew on the longstanding tradition of casuistical thinking in the church, but that didn't make many conservatives very happy, as they saw him as taking a giant step toward a slippery slope.

During the controversy there was much debate over whether the pope was invoking the ethical principle of the "lesser evil" or the "double effect" in his reasoning, but either way he made sure that a year that began with his name in headlines on an issue related to sex would end there as well.

Electoral ethics and the lesser evil

Speaking of Catholic casuistry, pundit Mark Shields had perhaps the best verdict on the year in politics, calling November's "shellacking" of Democrats "the Mae West election." It was West, as Shields told the Commonweal audience, who famously said: "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before."

In other words, having rejected Bush and the Republicans in the previous two election cycles, voters -- still disgruntled -- took it out on Obama and the Democrats this year.

The upshot is that Americans continue to view politics in religious terms, listening to prophets and looking for a messiah. The problem is that they don't have faith in anyone except themselves.

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"How much should we pay in taxes?" Jesus gave us the answer: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's"

December 31 2010 at 8:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Victoria, O, I am most definitely serious, and Jack Conway is seriously qualified
for the Senate, unlike Rand Paul who is not fit for dog-catcher. According to
him, those who are without work in Kentucky should stop whining. Paul should
be stopped before it is too late. Phyllis

December 31 2010 at 2:37 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to phylliskunz's comment

You are arguing last months news and in about 10 hours it will be last years news. Not to mention apparently the majority of Kentucky voters disagree with you. Your comments are off topic except for the silly Aqua Budda thing that no one took seriously.

December 31 2010 at 3:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A very interesting article, but I must say I am surprised no mention was
made of Rand Paul's strange religion and the most memorable political line
was by Attorny General Jack Conway "When is it ever appropriate to tie
up a woman."

December 31 2010 at 11:27 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I found your article interesting. I noticed in your discussion of religious subjects, that you never referenced the Bible. For the Muslims', the Koran is
their basis of authority for religious beliefs, and likewise the Bible is the
basis of authority for the Christians' religious beliefs. It would have added
a religious rationale to your discussions on abortion, homosexuality, and the Catholic church's sexual abuse scandals. Without recognizing the religious precepts of the Bible, you have left out the foundational principles of your article's discussion. It is important to credit a persons' beliefs to the
doctrines they are based on and the documents that they are taken from.

December 31 2010 at 2:05 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Glenn Beck’s theology is based on First Century Christianity, not Fourth Century Creeds. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views on Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs. Works, the Divinity of Jesus Christ comport more closely with Early Christianity than any other denomination. And Mormons’ teenagers have been judged to “top the charts” in Christian Characteristics by a UNC-Chapel Hill study. Read about it here:

Those who would say the Mormon religion is not Christian, usually are mis-informed.

Mormons have a better understanding of Christianity than any other denomination, according to a 2010 Pew Forum poll:

11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were non-Trinitarian Christians. Those who insist on a narrow definition of Christianity are doing our Republic an injustice.

December 31 2010 at 12:43 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Why in the world would looking at politics in religious terms and looking for a messiah that will never come be a good thing? When people stop having faith then we can start looking at real problems in the real world and looking for real solutions.

December 30 2010 at 11:40 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply

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