Looking ahead to 2009

The end of the year is always filled with lists — wish lists, of course, but also lists of the top stories of the past year. On the religion front the editors at Christianity Today came up with a list of the top news stories of 2008 as did others.

But reporters and editors are always looking forward, as well, with pages to fill in the days after the holiday rush and in the weeks and months to come. With that in mind, ReligionLink’s brain trust has compiled a brief list of a half-dozen Big Ideas — arenas of interest that journalists covering religion may want to keep in mind as they contemplate stories for the year to come.


Great Depression -- or Great Expectations?

The economy will likely dominate the coming year, experts say, just as it dominated the election. That may push aside — at least for those noncombatants in the Culture Wars — many of the hot-button religion issues that can dominate religion-related coverage. But that can also make room for deeper explorations of more complex topics.

For example, the social justice teachings of religious traditions could move to the fore as the new Obama administration and state and local governments make tough calls on what to cut and what to fund, and whose taxes to raise or lower. The Washington Post had a story on Dec. 14, 2008, “A City Looks to Its Moral Compass in Lean Times,” about Alexandria, Va., hiring an ethicist to help city officials “grapple with the moral issues involved” in such decisions.

Personal as well as congregational finances will also remain areas of concern, as churches and their members try to cope with diminished donations, lower salaries and job losses. How will people respond? A Dec. 13, 2008, article in The New York Times, “Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches,” focuses on how evangelical churches in particular are drawing worshippers interested in solace and a message of hope. Mainline and tradition-oriented churches like Roman Catholicism do not seem to be getting as much of a “recession bounce,” although The Boston Globe reported that sales of communion wafers are up at the Rhode Island firm that makes 80 percent of altar breads for North American Catholic churches.

End Times, or a New Beginning?

Finally, what of all the talk of messiahs and antichrists and the Apocalypse? Barack Obama was tabbed as a false messiah by some political opponents, and now he’s about to be sworn in as president — and in the midst of enough travails to write another sequel in the Left Behind series. So will that have folks talking even more about the Rapture? The “Armageddon Clock” maintained by advocates of the imminent Second Coming of Jesus was recently pushed to two minutes to midnight.

But Christians aren’t the only ones. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has since 1947 maintained the Doomsday Clock, which since 2007 stands at five minutes to midnight — the closest it has been since the depths of the Cold War in the early 1980s. As they note: “The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.”

A Truce of Civilizations?

Since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by American-led forces, the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis argued by Samuel Huntington and amplified by many others has become almost an undisputed article of faith. Yet experts say several factors could create the possibility of a relatively abrupt and unexpected change in that dynamic. Foremost is clearly the election of Barack Obama as president — a Christian whose father was born a Muslim in Kenya. Obama, whose first name is derived from the Arabic word for “blessed,” also says he will take the oath of office on Jan. 20 using his middle name as well, “Hussein,” also a word of Arabic origin. Simply replacing George W. Bush, who is deeply unpopular in the Muslim and Arab worlds, is a major shift. But Obama has also said that within 100 days of taking office he will travel “to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle.” (Michael Fullilove, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently argued in The New York Times that Obama should travel to Indonesia, where he lived for several years as a child.)

Obama’s plan to sharply draw down U.S. combat forces from Iraq would also represent a major shift, and experts say many Muslims would welcome a more successful, constructive and limited U.S. initiative in Afghanistan. Closing the Guantanamo detention camps would also be a significant marker, experts say. Moreover, as the Mumbai attacks showed, the theater of conflict may not be so much the Muslim or Arab world against “the West,” but rather internal struggles or attacks against other ethnic or religious communities. Some cite the steady advance in Vatican-Muslim talks (which followed Pope Benedict XVI’s inflammatory talk in Regensberg in 2006) as a significant but largely overlooked development.

Closer to home, an important aspect of any long-term shift in the clash of civilizations is the role that Muslims in the West, and particularly the United States, can play in fostering a détente of sorts or seeding Muslim countries with an openness to Western ideas. Many experts see this process as getting under way, and it is often compared to the way in which American Catholic scholars and leaders helped reformulate traditional Roman Catholic teachings during the 1960s.

Confession and the American Soul

An integral part of the coming shift in American priorities and policies will be a reckoning with the recent past, or at least a debate over whether and how to reckon with that past. Many critics of the Bush administration believe charges should be weighed against U.S. officials who authorized torture and other actions that may have broken international law. Andrew Sullivan, an often heterodox conservative who blogs at The Atlantic, has espoused this point of view. At the blog of Commonweal magazine, former editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels refers to her own essay on this issue, as well as to a number of other notable assessments of the feasibility and advisability of pursuing investigations, criminal or otherwise.

Others believe that although such a probe could lead to a witch hunt, there needs to be a full investigation of possible misdeeds that led to the Iraq invasion and related developments, such as the “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists to foreign countries. A complete airing of the record is a necessary first step, the argument goes, to a broader national self-appraisal of what went wrong and why — and to providing an accounting and a display of penance to those who have been harmed. The counterargument is that digging into the past would only further divide the nation, and at a time of great peril given the state of the economy. The voters have spoken and turned the page on this chapter of history.

This debate is at heart a religious and spiritual one and will likely reveal important aspects of the nation’s religious character. One model that is often invoked is that of the “truth and reconciliation commission.” The best-known example of that commission was in post-apartheid South Africa. Observers say an important moment in this debate will come by Jan. 20, President Bush’s last day in office, and the deadline for him to issue pardons.

The Religious Right: Room in the Big Tent?

The soul of the Republican Party is also coming under serious examination, and the outcome of the debate — which was reported in news stories before the ink was dry on the Nov. 4 ballots — will have an enormous impact on American society. The crux of the debate is on whether the party needs to moderate its talk on hot-button social and religious topics like abortion rights and gay marriage and focus on economic conservatism, or whether it needs to remain true to those positions and attempt to rally the “religious right” and draw more voters with a better message and better campaigns.

The divide tends to run between social conservatives and economic conservatives. Advocates range from P.J. O’Rourke, who called on the Republican Party to give abortion “a rest” and focus on other issues, to Ross Douthat, who argued in a New York Times op-ed that “Abortion Politics Didn’t Doom the G.O.P.”   Conservative columnist David Brooks also lays out the various camps.

As Mark Silk points out at Spiritual Politics: “Since 2000, the unaffiliated are the only religious grouping that has grown steadily more Democratic in its voting preferences, choosing Gore over Bush 61-30, Kerry over Bush 67-31, and Obama over McCain 75-23. This time around, for the first time, the unaffiliated preferred the Democrat by a larger margin than white evangelicals preferred the Republican.” Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, has also shown how the traditional demographic base of the Republican Party as it stands is shrinking as societal changes reshape the electorate.

The conservative crossroads represents a potential turning point for American society: If the GOP decides to moderate its social positions, will religious conservatives rebel? Will they leave? Or will they be forced to alter their tactics? If the Republican Party (and the conservative movement) does not take a different tack, will it continue to lose elections? Will Democrats continue to try to woo religious voters? And will these developments mean a truce — or an escalation — in the “culture wars”?

Playing the Numbers

Journalists tend to be math-challenged, but no one appreciates hard data more than they do — except perhaps for the social scientists who crunch those numbers. And no beat in journalism appreciates statistics more than the religion desk, where surveys can bring a quantifiable and accessible framework to stories that are often exercises in grasping the ineffable. A number of important surveys came out last year, and the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey will continue to serve as a reference point for stories.

Another major survey to be published early in the new year and offering a wide-angle view of American religion–with high resolution, as well–is the latest version of the American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS. The survey was conducted in 1990 (when it was known as the National Survey of Religious Identification, or NSRI) and in 2001. The new survey will provide nearly two decades of longitudinal comparisons and an infinite variety of angles for reporters to pursue, or to use to revisit older stories.

Barry Kosmin, now director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., is once again the lead researcher. Kosmin presented some preliminary findings dealing with secularists at a Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, session of the RNA conference in Washington. Contact Kosmin at 860-297-2388, [email protected].