Each year at this time the religiously oriented news services, such as the Religion News Service, Evangelical Press Association, and the Religion News Writers release a list of top religion stories of the year. They are often full of denominational actions that are important to relatively few people, and news about dying liberal groups that the newswriters think still represent American Christendom (See this article on the Episcopalian collapse [h/t: . Wesley Blog]).
Several years ago a religion newswriter for a major daily said that “religion news” is an oxymoron because the essence of religious faith does not have the attributes of news. Genuine faith and the moving of God in the hearts and minds of individuals are not breaking news. Spirituality is a process, the thinking goes.
I believe much has changed. I understand and appreciate that view and the depth it gives to things of faith, but there is a great deal in the realm of the church and the relationships of faith, politics, and the media that throb at the pace of the news. Even the pace of the blogosphere.
One thing I draw from the analysis, though, is that the most important news stories in the Christian community generally are not events, but trends and movements. It is mostly these items that comprise The Roof Top 10 Christian News Trends of 2004.
1. The Passion of the Christ: The Movie
2. Islam’s War on Christianity
3. Evangelical Political Muscle
4. Same-Sex Marriage Set-backs
5. Crisis in Catholicism
6. Mainstreaming of Christian Books
7. New Media Sources for Conservative Christians
8. DeChristmasizing of America
9. The Ideological Alignment of the Church
10. The Personal Faith and Integrity of President Bush
Here’s more on each.
1. The Passion of the Christ: No one predicted that a graphic, bloody movie on the last days of Jesus Christ, in Aramaic, that was unfairly criticized for being anti-Semitic because of it accurate portrayal of the biblical record, would set box office and DVD records and take the nation and the world by storm. The amount of evangelism and genuine soul-searching as a result of the movie and subsequent discussions is incalculable (at a time when the number of Southern Baptist baptisms declined for the fourth straight year). Certainly Mel Gibson’s film is one of the most consequential spiritual events not just of the year but of our time.
2. Islamic Radicalism’s War on Christianity: The international jihad of Islam against the West generally and against Christianity specifically was elevated this year in the public eye by the war on terror and the rantings of Osama. Persecution of Christians and other faiths continues in many Third World countries, mostly by radical Muslims. This has had a dampening effect on international missions like nothing else.
Jewish activist Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute says Christian believers are strangely silent about the plight of their brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted today in unprecedented numbers, especially in Africa and the Middle East. As Horowitz puts it, Christians may well become “the Jews of the twenty-first century.” Examples: A treaty in Sudan did not stop persecution of Christians there, and in Iraq, a four-person Southern Baptist humanitarian team was killed, and Christian churches destroyed.
President Bush is doing the right thing to say that the war on terror is not a war on Islam. But we know (and since we are not in government we can say) that it is an international effort to combat radical Islam’s war on us. For the troubling story of international Christian persecution, consult Voice of the Martyrs.
3. Evangelical Political Muscle: Evangelicals emerged from the presidential election with a new swagger. The influence is good and important, but the swagger is unbecoming of followers of Christ. Although many evangelical activists will claim not to be surprised that the evangelical vote was pivotal, I think that most in the conservative Christian community were pleasantly surprised both by the clarity of the evangelical voice and recognition of this by the MSM. I watch these things closely, and it was shock to me. The question now is if the evangelicals will overplay their hand and lose their credibility by trying to exercise more power than they actually have. Evangelical influence will increase if they represent a broad range of issues (see What Evangelicals Want, Nov. 5) and seek to be persuasive players, not bullies.
4. Same-Sex Marriage Setbacks: Christians who are passionate in their opposition to same-sex marriage were alarmed early in the year with gay marriages in Massachusetts, following last year’s state Supreme Court ruling. Then San Francisco and other municipalities tried to do the same without benefit of the law. The ceremonies were invalidated, and it soon became clear that homosexual activists had terribly overplayed their hand. Christian conservatives were in the forefront as public opinion turned against same-sex marriage (if not homosexual unions of some kind), and 11 states passed amendments on Election Day against gay marriage.
5. Crisis of Catholicism: MSM focus on the huge settlements in Catholic sex-abuse cases, on diocesan bankruptcies, and on criminal convictions. The greatest cost to the Catholic Church (other than the corroding of the souls of the priests involved in the abuse itself) is the loss of credibility and moral authority. This is absolutely devastating to the church, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. With Pope John Paul II fading and the uncertainties of what a new Pope will represent, the Catholic Church faces of time of profound testing.
6. Mainstreaming of Christian Books: You can find examples through the decades of overtly Christian books rising to the top of the mainstream best-seller lists. For instance: Hal Lindsey’s Great Late Planet Earth in the early 70’s, and Chuck Colson’s Born Again in 1976. But we are now seeing Christian books displayed and purchased with regularity in book stores of all kinds. In 2004, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life dominated best-seller lists. The news is that it is no longer remarkable. The success of the LaHaye/Jenkins Left Behind series , Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez have opened the eyes of publishers and retailers of all and no faith to the fact that Christians read.
7. New Media Sources for Conservative Christians: Conservative Christians are turning away from traditional sources for news and information. Tired of the bias and hostility of MSM, Christians have joined other conservatives in supporting the assent of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and the blogosphere. Interestingly, these alternative media sources have become the conduit of political thought and cultural values, if not doctrinal specificity, of the conservative Christian community, also at the expense of Christian media. Christian television has collapsed in scandal and been marginalized, Christian radio is largely the medium of preaching and music (Salem Radio’s move into talk radio is an exception), and Christian publications are struggling for readership.
8. DeChristmasizing of America: 2004 may be seen as a watershed for the forces seeking to cleanse American Christmas celebrations and events that occur anywhere near the public square of Christ and all things Christmas. We have documented in this space, as have many blogs, the outrageous efforts of aggressive lawyers, politicians, educators, and others to remove the stories, language, traditions, arts, symbols—even the colors—of Christmas. (The latest: A Florida county bans Christmas trees after its district attorney calls them religious symbols [h/t: The Roth Report]). Although this may cause a backlash, with the inclusion of all faith celebrations a compromise position, it is just as likely that leaders making decisions at Christmas time will choose what they see as the path of least resistance, and totally secularize every expression of every holiday season. The deChristmasizing is a subset of the larger effort to remove the Christian faith from the public square. I considered the overarching issue last month in The Declaration of Independence and the Fear of God.
9. Ideological Alignment of the Church: The great divide in American religion is no longer Protestant/Catholic—it is conservative and liberal. That split has now aligned completely with the same political divide. The Cultural Conservatives (fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics and conservative blacks, and conservative Catholics) constitute the virile force that represented electoral victory for Republicans in 2004. The recognition of an alignment of conservative Catholics and Protestants goes back to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document published by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson in 1994.
The Cultural Liberals include the Protestant Mainline, liberal Catholics, much of the black church, and secularists. Other groups such as the Jewish and Islamic communities are small and split. Two symbols of this alignment in 2004: The popularity of The Passion in Catholic and evangelical quarters, and Sean Hannity, a Catholic, speaking at Focus on the Family, the fundamentalist/evangelical bastion.
10. The Personal Faith and Integrity of President Bush: People of faith and in good faith can and will argue about whether President Bush’s policies are in keeping with biblical teaching or represent moral values. That’s politics. But to millions of Americans, Christian faith and the value of morality have been demonstrated by the personal integrity, lifestyle, and spiritual expression of George W. Bush, the man. Regardless of one’s opinion of President Bill Clinton as a government leader, only Democratic zealots deny that Clinton was and is morally challenged. His sexual escapades and unwillingness to take responsibility for his troubles were devastating to personal morality in America. The return of integrity, the example of spiritual conversion, and the permissibility of overt faith in the Oval Office have been among the great accomplishments of Bush’s first term.
Gone are the days when the news of religion is confined to a Saturday section graveyard in the daily newspaper. Religious events, trends, and controversies are a vibrant part of the news, and in 2004 the impact of faith was a leading newsmaker.
Do you agree that these are the top Christian news trends of 2004? Let’s hear what you think.