Issue Date: December 28, 2007
2007 was a quiet harbinger of change on religious scene
By KEVIN ECKSTROM
History books are full of dates that mark seminal events: 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and launched the Protestant Reformation; or 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion.
Those boldface dates are preceded by less prominent but nonetheless decisive times: 1516, when a Dominican named Johann Tetzel led the sale of indulgences that deeply angered Luther; and 1970, when a young Texas woman named Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) filed suit to obtain an abortion.
2007 may be recorded as such a pivotal year for religion and politics -- relatively quiet, unremarkable at first glance, but nonetheless significant as a harbinger of things to come.
There are a lot of discrete things, but if you put them all together, you get the sense that change is in the air, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The realignment of the religious right is perhaps the biggest religion story of 2007 and the one most likely to affect 2008. The religious right is far from dead, but leaves the year significantly altered:
In other indications that something is shifting, a Mormon won the endorsement of the head of ultraconservative Bob Jones University; an antiabortion former Southern Baptist pastor-turned-governor from the Bible Belt struggled to gain traction; and megachurch pastor Rick Warren invited Hillary Clinton to talk about AIDS.
Even some of the biggest names in religious broadcasting ended the year under a cloud of scrutiny after Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, requested financial records in a probe of lavish spending by six television ministries.
The religious right is not dead, said Laura Olson, a political scientist at Clemson University in South Carolina, but it certainly has begun to look different lately.
All of this could change -- dramatically -- once nominees are chosen in the first months of 2008. A Clinton win could rally evangelical values voters against her, just as a Giuliani win could mobilize at least some evangelicals against him.
Most would still vote for Giuliani or Mitt Romney against Hillary Clinton, but thered be a lot less enthusiasm, said Marvin Olasky, editor of the conservative World magazine. Would they stay home? Most would not, but a significant slice might. Would they vote for a third party? Most would not, but again, a significant slice might, to make a big difference.
Either way, the religious right seems uncharacteristically splintered, demoralized and disengaged heading into an 2008 election year. Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College, says religion is losing its grip on the voting booth.
Weve got big foreign policy problems, a suffering economy -- those are the rock-bottom issues that people are going back to, and religion doesnt really help with those issues, he said.
One issue that remains unsettled is how Giuliani, a Catholic, will navigate relations with the church hierarchy over his support of abortion rights. In November, Catholic bishops said abortion remains a preeminent issue and warned Catholic voters that electoral decisions may affect the individuals salvation.
Its unclear whether abortion will become the same albatross for Giuliani that it was for Sen. John Kerry in 2004, although a handful of bishops have already been critical. Thats one of the biggest questions to watch, Wolfe said.
On the world stage, 2007 was equally quiet, at least compared with recent years. Within Islam, relations with the West continued at a slow simmer, minus the violent reaction seen in 2006 to the Muhammad cartoon controversy.
But again, in a subtle sign that significant changes may be in the offing, 138 international Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict XVI in October to suggest that the common principles of love of the one God, and love of the neighbor could build a bridge of peace between Muslims and Christians.
In the same vein, a council of U.S. Muslim clerics Nov. 30 issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that says Muslims are religiously obligated to help prevent terrorism. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington who has taken a special interest in the Middle East, joined leaders of the Fiqh Council of North America in front of the media lights when they made their announcement.
We are all children of Abraham, said McCarrick, so were all family. And we really need to love each other, understand each other and work together.
Looking into 2008, all eyes are on China and its human rights record as it prepares to host the Olympic Games. Beijing dismissed as a farce the Congressional Gold Medal given to the Dalai Lama in October, accusing Washington of meddling in its ongoing feud with the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet.
Beijing and the Vatican took small steps to end a diplomatic dispute over who can appoint bishops to Chinas state-run Catholic church, with one eye on a possible first-ever papal trip to China.
The pope had an eye on the past when he approved wider availability of the old Latin Mass. The Vatican also reaffirmed the primacy of the Catholic church, saying Protestant bodies are not churches in the proper sense. Most Protestants dismissed it as nothing new.
Episcopal bishops continued their battle with conservatives over policies on human sexuality. Under pressure from overseas Anglican leaders, U.S. bishops reaffirmed their pledge not to elect any more gay bishops and said they wont authorize rites for same-sex blessings, though some acknowledged such blessings occur in their dioceses.
The dispute shifts back to England next July, when Anglican bishops from around the world meet for their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. Key conservatives from the Third World have hinted they would rather boycott than meet alongside their liberal U.S. counterparts.
2007 may also be remembered for the rebirth of a reinvigorated atheist movement. Books that questioned religious belief topped best-seller lists -- even among religious titles -- throughout the year, including Christopher Hitchens God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins The God Delusion.
In a decision that could shape the abortion debate for years to come, the Supreme Court upheld a 2003 ban on so-called partial-birth abortion. Abortion foes called it a necessary check on a gruesome procedure; supporters worry it moves the court one step closer to overturning Roe v. Wade.
National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2007
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