2012 saw an upheaval in religious events across the world. In the United States, the Presidential election spun off several events that will affect religion in America in the coming years. Internationally, Islam continues to move in a more political direction—with dire consequences for many Christians. And at least one notable death occurred this year that brings into sharp relief the church’s calling in caring for the forgotten people of the world.
It’s always dangerous to put together a top ten list, especially of religious stories, since everyone has a different opinion. But from my vantage point as a local church pastor, these are the ten that will impact the church most in the coming months and years.
1. Mitt Romney runs for President of the United States. For a major political party to nominate a Mormon as its candidate for President is a game-changer, especially when you consider the influence that conservative Christians have exercised in the Republican Party for the last thirty years. On the one hand, Romney’s candidacy brought a degree of legitimacy to his religion. Mormons had been widely ridiculed for decades. On the other hand, it also demonstrated how religion plays less and less of a role in American political life.
2. Rising Islamism. From the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory in Egypt to Syria’s revolution to Turkey’s increasingly restrictive religious controls, the Islamic world is moving toward a much more conservative stance against all non-Muslim influences. The impact of that drift is already being felt in persecutions against Nigerian Christians, the Coptic Church in Egypt and many other places across the world.
3. President Obama voices support for gay marriage. In May, the President went on national television to indicate that he had changed his previous position opposing gay marriage. He said he had decided gay marriage was a constitutional right and that in the future he hoped the law of the land would be changed to support it. His remarks sent shock waves through the nation, especially through conservative churches.
4. Religious objections to Obamacare. Led by Catholic bishops, many religious organizations are protesting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requirement that contraception services be included in all health plans since their religious convictions prohibit such services. Several lawsuits have already been filed with more to follow, setting up a classic legal confrontation in the near future over the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.
5. The Newtown, Connecticut school shootings. Earlier this month when Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, our nation plunged into the same sort of soul-searching that previous school shootings caused. But among vexing questions about the availability of guns, psychological issues and school safety practices there was also a theological subtext: why does a good God allow evil like this to occur? It’s not an easy question and the struggle to answer it is one of life’s most difficult tasks.
6. The first Hindu and Buddhist members of Congress elected. In yet another reminder that the religious nature of America is changing, last month’s election saw, Tulsi Gabbard, a Hindu, elected to serve in the United States House of Representatives. Mazie Hirono, a Buddhist, was also elected to serve in the United States Senate. Both are from Hawaii. Gabbard was sworn in using the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, instead of the Bible. The two join Minnesota’s Congressman Keith Ellison—a Muslim—as members of religious traditions never before represented in the Congress.
7. “Nones” the nation’s fastest growing religious group. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s latest survey revealed that “Nones”—people with no religious affiliation, including atheists and agnostics—now comprise 19.6% of our population. For us in the church, this figure is startling because it shows how fast we’re becoming a non-Christian nation.
8. The Southern Baptist Convention elects its first black president. In June the nation’s largest Protestant denomination elected Dr. Fred Luter, a black pastor from New Orleans, as its leader. Coming from a denomination long known for its racist history, this event was a watershed moment for not only Southern Baptists but the nation in general.
9. The 2012 general election continues the decline of evangelical political clout. From three states approving gay marriage to two states legalizing marijuana to the re-election of President Obama, last month’s election showed that the evangelical power so evident in the last three decades is sharply declining. All the major conservative denominations, organizations and most visible leaders opposed the President’s re-election. But their voices carried little weight with the American public. The future effectiveness of evangelical political involvement is in serious doubt.
10. Chuck Colson dies in April. Several notable religious leaders died in 2012, but I had to put Colson on the Top Ten list because of one crucial truth. In a year where politics and religion were so intertwined, Colson demonstrated more than anyone else in recent memory how religion can be freed from politics to accomplish things that politics can’t. From the highest positions of power in the Nixon White House to the lowest rung of society as a federal prisoner, Colson remade himself (he would have said it was all through God’s grace) into a passionate and effective advocate for the forgotten people, men and women serving in prisons and jails across the world. For him and the Prison Fellowship he created, the gospel of Jesus transcends political parties, socio-economic class distinctions and even national governments, to offer forgiveness and hope in a way nothing else can.