Although Sept. 11 still reverberated across the American landscape, religious trends emerged from several unexpected places in 2002.
As is customary, the following review looks at the trends unfolding from last year’s news that are likely to carry some impact in 2003 and beyond. Some of the trends have received fuller treatment in previous issues of RW in 2002 (which are listed after each entry), but others are reported here for the first time.
01: The sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was overwhelmingly selected as the top religion news story by U.S. reporters.
Most of the revelations of abuse and bishop negligence took place years, even decades ago. Yet the crisis represents a long-range trend because of the response it generated among the laity and the hierarchy. The resignation of Cardinal Law of Boston suggests that the reform movement to press church leaders on issues of accountability can impact the highest levels of the church.
Whether this movement, as expressed in such a group as Voice of the Faithful, can garner the support of the pluralistic American church (already conservatives are strongly critical of it) is more in doubt. Already there are several competing groups pressing for different agendas in the church, such as the support for priests’ rights and the removal and prevention of homosexuals from entering the priesthood. (September, November RW)
02: Issues of prejudice against Muslims and the efforts of the American Muslim community to deal with extremism in its ranks are ongoing trends that have developed since Sept. 11.
Although on hold in the months following the attacks, the sharply critical attitudes of evangelicals and fundamentalists toward Islam gradually, and sometimes abruptly, came to the surface last year. Since the early 1990s, Islam has replaced communism as the major obstacle to evangelical missionary expansion. Also in the last few years, some Third World evangelicals and charismatics have viewed Islam more malevolently, often with supernatural undertones (associating evil spirits with Islamic teachings and practices).
These currents have found a place among a segment of American evangelicals; witness last year’s public statements condemning Islam made by the Southern Baptist Convention, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell.
03: The Republican landslide in November suggests that the New Christian Right still has some momentum, even if it has been scaled-back organizationally.
While there is as yet no evidence that religious right support was a leading factor in any of the races, the movement is likely to gain influence and allies due to the conservative Republican shift in Washington. Observers of the New Christian Right have observed that as conservative Christians have learned the ropes politically they are more likely to make their impact felt through Republican Party channels rather than through the Christian Coalition and other explicitly Christian groups.
04: Last November’s “Godless March on Washington” revealed a growing concern among atheists and secular humanists to gain greater acceptance in American society.
Such a bid for acceptance includes starting a political action committee to help get more atheists elected to political office. It remains to be seen if hard core atheists and freethinkers can tone down their “godless” polemics to gain a hearing among secular and religious Americans. (November)
05: Although not underreported in much of the media (including RW), the threat of war against Iraq has reignited a religious peace movement. The general mood of inattention may be due to the growing uncertainty about how to resist a war on terrorism among both religious and secular liberals. At the same time, the “just war” tradition is coming under new scrutiny as such concepts as pre-emptive attacks enter the debate. (September)
06: In Europe, questions are increasingly being asked about the future religious and cultural identity of a continent in which secularization has progressed, but where levels of religious affiliation and practice remain quite diverse from one country to the other. Three developments have highlighted those issues in 2002.
Presided over by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the European Convention — from which a European Constitution might result — began its working sessions in February without representatives of the communities of believers. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly criticized this situation and has urged that the values upon which Europe was founded be taken into consideration. The Roman Catholic Church has monitored with irritation for the past few years French governmental attempts to advocate secular foundations for the future of Europe.
Second, the extension of the European Union will increase the number of countries belonging to the European Union, including countries with an Orthodox past (despite the heritage left by years of Communist regimes). Although Russia is not currently a candidate for membership into the European Union, it is not unsignificant that in October of 2002 the Moscow Patriarchate sent a declaration to the European Convention.
In that declaration, the Patriarchate states that it is necessary to express in any future Constitution the significance of religious precepts as a source of universal values for the believers. The Patriarchate also emphasized that it is necessary to take into consideration European cultural and religious diversity, and not just to impose a secular Western European model.
Finally, the intensification of the Turkish lobbying for membership into the EU following the recent Turkish elections has also raised again more acutely the issue of the borders of Europe and how far the EU could integrate a Muslim country. Many Turks feel that a non-acceptance of their country into the EU would mean that Europe considers itself as a “Christian club.” Even in secularized times, religious identities obviously remain a hot issue in Europe.
07: The decision made last Fall by the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to introduce a “Prohibition of Forcible Conversion” law has made clear once again the sensitivites aroused by evangelism or “proselytizing” across the Indian subcontinent as well as in other places around the globe.
Protests against this ordinance have not convinced the Parliament of Tamil Nadu, which has supported it by a majority vote. Any conversion should be now be reported to a district magistrate. The sweeping victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in December, and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat last February are signs that conflicts over proselytism and other issues of religious freedom will not be resolved any time soon in India.
It is, however, unlikely that anti-proselytization measures will decrease the energy of missionary groups in India or elsewhere. For instance, in an article published in the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 1), staff writer Paul Richter reports that the number of US evangelical missionaries in the Middle East has increased despite the rise of anti-American forms of militant Islam.
Health institutions created by missionary agencies are welcomed for their contribution to the well-being of the people, but at the same time considered with suspicion as harboring proselytizing activities. The killing of three American Baptist missionaries in Yemen in late December has illustrated once again the risks which can be involved.
— This review was written with contributing editor Jean-Francois Mayer, who also heads the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)