Most news outlets have their top ten list of news stories for the past year or predictions for the new year, so here is my list for the top five news stories from 2008 that will continue to shape the intersection of religion and politics in 2009.
1) Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States in April was a chance for the pontiff to show his brother bishops how to conduct themselves in the public square. There was no finger-pointing. There was no communion-denying. There was encouragement, exhortation, incisive intellectual commentary on current social trends. He communicated the Catholic faith unfettered from the cultural Jansenism that has so long infected the Church in America. In the year ahead, look for more moderate bishops to point to his example again and again in their discussion with those bishops who want a more intransigent posture towards the culture.
2) Catholic support for President-elect Barack Obama was decisive in many states, especially the Latino vote that turned Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico from red to blue by large margins. Obama will move to consolidate those gains by delivering on comprehensive immigration reform, as well as other public policies supported by the Church from universal health insurance to a less militaristic foreign policy.
3) The Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) and Obama’s pledge to sign it was used by Republican operatives to create fear among traditional Catholics and the entire hierarchy. It worked to a degree: Many Catholic Bishops talked about their fears of FOCA non-stop both before and after the election. But, FOCA is a canard. It will never pass Congress. Indeed, it will never even make it out of the Democratic caucus as pro-life Democrats in swing districts will correctly point out how it would hurt their re-election prospects in 2010. As the bishops realize they were worried about a scarecrow, their relationship to Deal Hudson, George Weigel, and other prominent Republican Catholics should become cooler.
4) The on-going divisions within the Episcopal Church illustrate a much-discussed dynamic in recent years: Denominational differences are less indicative of voting behavior than ideological differences. That is, a conservative Catholic and a conservative evangelical are more likely to have the same outlook than a conservative Catholic and a liberal one. This dynamic must become the focus of sustained attention by the Catholic hierarchy if we are to avoid the kinds of schisms the Episcopalians are witnessing. Unlike most Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church did not split apart during the Civil War, but they are splitting now. Ecclesiology must be given renewed prominence if we are to keep the differences of opinion, often legitimate differences, within the Church from breaking it apart.
5) When. Rev. Jeremiah Wright said crazy things, he was thrown under the bus. When Rev. John Hagee said crazy things, he was thrown under the bus. When certain Catholic prelates exceeded their reach by telling voters how to vote, their flocks ignored them and voted for Obama. The pulpit is no longer sufficient protection for outrageousness and preachers and prelates who enter the public square will be expected to be reasonable in their exhortations. This is very good news, not only because it diminishes the divisive potential of religion in politics, but because it keeps religion from fanaticism.
So, those are my top five news stories that look to continue making news. What are yours?