A Year Of Change

12:00 AM CST on Saturday, December 29, 2007

From Wire Reports

2007may be recorded as a pivotal year for religion and politics – a year that was relatively quiet, unremarkable at first glance, but nonetheless a significant harbinger. “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:

• The deaths of Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy and even Tammy Faye Bakker Messner signaled a passing of the guard to a new generation of less doctrinaire conservatives with a broader social agenda.

• The Christian Coalition decided to sit out the 2008 presidential race, and the new president of the National Association of Evangelicals said he’d rather conduct a wedding or funeral than meet with White House hopefuls.

• Pat Robertson pronounced Rudy Giuliani an “acceptable” choice despite his support of abortion rights and civil unions and his three marriages.

In other indications that something is shifting, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, won the endorsement of the head of ultraconservative Bob Jones University; an anti-abortion former Southern Baptist pastor-turned-governor from the Bible Belt, Mike Huckabee, struggled to gain traction; and megachurch pastor Rick Warren invited Hillary Rodham Clinton to talk about AIDS.

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, including two in North Texas: Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.

“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 this could change – dramatically – once nominees are chosen in the first months of 2008.

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 on Nov. 30 issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that said Muslims are religiously obligated to prevent terrorism.

Looking into 2008, all eyes are on China 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 China’s 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, in June, 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.”

Episcopal bishops continued their battle with conservatives over policies on human sexuality. In early December, the Diocese of San Joaquin, Calif., voted to become the first diocese to secede from the U.S. church.

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.

Kevin Eckstrom

Religion News Service