In this last week of the year, the news media publish retrospectives of the highlights of the past year. It’s one of those pro forma exercises in the news business, done as much because, well, we do it every year, as for any other reason. However, it has its uses. We tend to forget a lot of what happens over the course of the year, so it helps to remember that.
News that has to do with religion is no exception. The Religion News Association, a respected professional organization for journalists who cover religion in secular news media, rings its membership annually to rank what they consider to be the top 10 religious reports of the year. The list for 2021 was released last week. Rather than giving you the 10, I’ll just mention a few.
The most significant story of the year for the RNA is the January 6 riot at the United States Capitol. It may not appear to be primarily a story of religion, but in fact religious belief was an important element among many who participated in this shocking act of sedition. Signs and banners bearing Christian slogans and symbols were numerous, as were those of pagan origin. The so-called “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley, once he reached the floor of the House of Representatives, took off his horned headdress and offered a long, rambling “prayer” that mixed all manner of Christian sentiments and nationalists.
History still resonates because the movement, including its religious impulses, which propelled the insurgency has not faded.
Story # 2 on the 2021 RNA list is the Taliban’s resumption of control of Afghanistan after the departure of US forces. There isn’t much to say about it except that the jury is still out on whether the Taliban are a nicer, gentler version of the fundamentalist Muslim group that terrorized the Afghan people ago. At 25 years.
The COVID pandemic has taken two places on the RNA’s list. One story involved people seeking religious exemptions from vaccination warrants, without much sympathy from major religious leaders. The other was – and continues to be – the effect the pandemic is having on places of worship and major religious observances around the world. Almost all congregations report that attendance and donations are between half and two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels. At the Christmas Eve service at my church last week, attendance was decent, but barely what it was three years ago.
On a related note, the pandemic may have accelerated a trend that was noted in another Top 10 story. A Gallup poll found that the number of members in places of worship fell below 50. % for the first time in the eight decades Gallup has measured the subject. Some 47% of Americans reported belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque in 2020, up from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.
There were two stories related to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is said to have been the largest Protestant denomination in the country. (I have my doubts about this claim, which is based primarily on summary record keeping practices.) In a report, popular author and speaker Beth Moore announced that she had terminated her affiliation with the editorial arm of the SBC because of the “prevalent sexism and misogyny” in parts of the convention.
In a related dust-off, the convention’s senior leadership has been troubled by leaks of documents and resignations following an investigation into how they handled complaints of sexual abuse in local congregations. At its annual meeting, representatives pushed back an attempt to push the denomination further to the right, electing a president known to seek racial reconciliation and reaffirming a further investigation into how the Executive Committee has handled abuse complaints. sexual.
Finally, the top 10 religious stories included the election of Joe Biden as the country’s second Catholic president, with the ensuing controversy over his support for abortion rights in defiance of church teaching. . The RNA poll also named Biden the Religious Journalist of the Year.
Back when I was a journalist, longer than I would like to admit, some of these topics were also on RNA’s Top 10 list. The Taliban, the decline in religious affiliation, the controversies within the Southern Baptist Convention – we’ve seen it before.
Which only shows that at the turn of another year, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Cary McMullen is a retired journalist and former religious editor of The Ledger.