Religion journalists voted last week for the No. 1 religion story of the year. They chose President Barack Obama’s June speech in which he pledged a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations during a visit to Cairo.
Rick Warren, the California megachurch pastor who gained attention with his presidential Inauguration Day invocation and comments in the aftermath of Prop. 8, was named 2009 Religion Newsmaker of the Year. (AP photo)
“The Obama inauguration solidified his status as America’s most influential evangelical and putative successor to Billy Graham as America’s Pastor,” Jeffery L. Sheler, author of the new Warren biography “Prophet of Purpose,” said in news release.
“On the flip-side, it also has made him a formidable target of critics and has exposed him to some withering attacks. How he handles the continuing onslaught will be a supreme test of his character.” Read the rankings of the top religion stories at the jump.
Below, in order, are the Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association.
1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.
2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 topic in Congress for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.
3. Because Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review; some fear a backlash.
4. Dr. George Tiller, regarded as the country’s leading abortion doctor, is gunned down while ushering in his Wichita Lutheran church. Scott Roeder, charged with his murder, is described as a man suffering from delusions and professing radical religious beliefs.
5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Prop. 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.
6. President Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.
7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy who are in a committed monogamous relationship, leading a number of conservative churches — known as the Coalition for Renewal — to move toward forming a new denomination.
8. The recession forces cutbacks at a great variety of faith-related organizations — houses of worship, relief agencies, colleges and seminaries, publishing houses.
9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury. At year’s end, Los Angeles chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop. Earlier, an elected bishop in Upper Michigan, Kevin Thew Forrester, is rejected because of his extreme liberal views.
10. President Obama’s inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by gay Bishop Gene Robinson.
The other events and stories that did not rank in the Top 10 were:
11. The European Parliament votes to widen anti-discrimination laws to require churches, schools and social services to open their membership to those who do not share their beliefs. The required approval from all member states is not considered likely. Meanwhile, some countries crack down on immigrant religions; the Swiss vote restrictions on the building of minarets.
12. The Anglican Church in North America elects Robert Duncan, deposed Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh, as archbishop, signifying that the breakaway group is not going to go away.
13. Obama’s executive order allowing federal funds to be used for embryonic stem-cell research worries some anti-abortion supporters, is played down by others. The importance of ultrasound technology in preventing abortions is debated.
14. Religious animosity in Iraq among Muslims continues to plague efforts to build a lasting peace. And it continues as one of the barriers to a settlement in the Middle East.
15. Pope Benedict XVI issues Caritas in Veritate encyclical, applying Catholic social-justice emphasis to economic life; shortly afterward he meets with Obama.
16. Obama creates a board-based commission to deal with faith-based matters in his administration but many conservatives remain suspicious of what it will accomplish. His overseas statement that America is not a Christian nation draws criticism from the religious right, but his supporters argue it was taken out of context.
17. The 200th anniversaries of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln are both marked on Feb. 12; many seminars and discussions consider Darwin’s effect on religion and religion’s effect on Lincoln.
18. The Supreme Court again considers legality of placement of crosses on public land; a decision in the Mojave National Preserve case will come in 2010. Related cases make their way through federal courts.
19. Declines in membership lead Southern Baptists to decide on a new evangelism strategy, Great Commission Resurgence, but some SBC leaders believe the emphasis is misplaced.
20. Changes in leadership leads to tension at some of America’s best known churches — the Crystal Cathedral in California, Coral Ridge Presbyterian and the Church Without Walls in Florida, Riverside in New York City.
21. An immigration raid on a Kosher slaughterhouse leads to fears of shortages in Kosher meat and higher prices.
22. The Catholic bishop of Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, asks U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy to refrain from taking communion because of some of his positions, notably on abortion.
23. Immigration reform is placed on the back-burner in the new Congress, but it continues to be a topic of disagreement between religious liberals and conservatives, especially in states with many illegal immigrants. The National Association of Evangelicals comes out for comprehensive, compassionate reform.
The poll was conducted in an online ballot among active members Dec. 11-14. RNA members are journalists who report on religion in general circulation media outlets. The poll had a 36 percent response rate.