After waves of headlines about faith and politics, President-elect Barack Obama was the clear choice as the top Religion Newsmaker of 2008.
The odds were also good that the Religion Newswriters Association would pick the White House race as its top news story. But there was a problem. There were so many faith-based issues in play during this election year that America's religion-beat specialists had trouble deciding which of these hot stories was No. 1.
In the end, this was the winning item: "Controversial sermons delivered in recent years by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surface, resulting in pressure on Barack Obama, who eventually withdraws his membership in his church, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago. Meanwhile, John McCain rejects the endorsements of evangelists John Hagee, a critic of Catholicism, and Rod Parsley."
However, it's important to note that this RNA poll was held before two other stories broke, each demonstrating why it will be hard for the Obama administration to find middle ground in America's wars over religion and public life.
The first was the resignation of the National Association of Evangelicals official Richard Cizik, who drew fire when he endorsed civil unions for gays and lesbians and hinted that he was willing to compromise on gay marriage, as well. In an interview with National Public Radio, the veteran lobbyist said: "I'm shifting, I have to admit. I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining traditional marriage, I don't think."
In the end, it was impossible for the association's leaders to ignore those crucial words, "I don't think."
Then, soon after that controversy, Obama was criticized by leaders on the secular and religious left for selecting another high-profile evangelical to give the invocation at his inauguration.
The Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church had also made cautious statements suggesting a willingness to compromise on civil unions. However, Warren drew fierce attacks from gay-rights supporters due to his strong support for California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which defined marriage as the union of husband and wife.
The rest of the RNA top 10 looked like this:
(2) Led by Obama's example, Democrats reach out to religious voters. At a crucial stage of the campaign, Obama participates in a debate with John McCain moderated by Warren and held in his megachurch sanctuary. Conservative Christians are given a few moments in the Democratic National Convention spotlight.
(3) The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as the GOP vice-presidential nominee energizes evangelical activists, who are excited by her defense of unborn children -- both in her personal life and in public policies. Many religious conservatives reluctantly back McCain.
(4) The California Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage, but voters in November -- including a large majority of African-Americans -- approve a constitutional amendment enforcing a traditional definition of marriage. Gay marriage also fails at the polls in Arizona and Florida.
(5) Pope Benedict XVI makes his first U.S. visit, drawing massive crowds in Washington and New York. The pope also meets with a few Catholics who had been sexually abused by clergy and openly addresses their concerns from the pulpit.
(6) Backed by Anglican traditionalists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, conservatives alienated from the U.S. Episcopal Church appeal to the Anglican Communion to create a parallel jurisdiction -- the Anglican Church in North America. This open split follows decades of doctrinal fighting in the Episcopal Church, including the consecration of a noncelibate gay priest as a bishop five years ago.
(7) India is rocked by terrorist attacks, including a three-day siege in Mumbai that results in the deaths of almost 200, including an American rabbi and his wife at an Orthodox Jewish center. Authorities pursue links to radical Islamists in Pakistan. Meanwhile, fatal attacks on Christians in the eastern state of Orissa continue during 2008.
(8) The Chinese government makes strategic moves to suppress Buddhists seeking Tibetan independence in an attempt to stage peaceful Olympics games. Still, some demonstrations mar rites to pass the Olympic torch.
(9) Religious groups are hit by effects of a struggling economy and begin to face declines in offerings, forcing many to cut staff and expenses while the need for social services increases nationwide.
(10) Chaledean Archbishop Paulos Rahho is kidnapped and murdered in Mosul, Iraq. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups continue to trade attacks. Reports of stability increase toward the end the year, including the return of some persecuted Christians to their homes.
(Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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