As voted by the Religion Newswriters Association’s members, among the year’s most consequential religion newsmakers were Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Pope Benedict XVI, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and the U.S. bishops.
How would you have ranked them? Has their influence been harmful or constructive? What issue or person do you expect to have the biggest impact in the year to come?
Too often in 2010, people who made religious news were disappointing.
There were exceptions, like the amazingly ecumenical montage of religious leaders who jumped in and assisted the people of Haiti after that tiny country’s earthquake at the beginning of the year.
But for the most part, religious leaders who made the news did not do all that much to lead or inspire people to get closer to God.
There was Pope Benedict, and Roman Catholic bishops, who, under scrutiny, seem less and less admirable in their handling of alleged cases of sexual impropriety by Roman Catholic priests. The questions I found myself asking the pope were, “What did you know and when did you know it? And how come you took so long to “man up” to the problem?”
There was Bishop Eddie Long, a vociferously anti-gay Baptist preacher and pastor of an Atlanta megachurch, who was accused of having sexual relations with young male members of his church. Bishop Long was strangely quiet in his defense of himself, and ending up settling the case out of court.
There was Sarah Palin, who sought to make news in all areas, including religion. Her opinion that anyone running for public office should have to publicly declare his or her adherence to Christianity. Her opinion reeked of arrogance and insensitivity to the fabric of American society, which is a quilt of many religions, in addition to many races and ethnicities.
There was Pastor Terry Jones, the Gainesville, Florida Baptist minister who, angry about the possibility of a mosque being built near Ground Zero, caused an international stir by saying he was going to publicly burn Qur’ans.
There were the scores of ministers of all faiths who fought against the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” stirring up the fear of gay people in the military and in general.
At the end of the day, it felt like religious newsmakers were religious noise makers, more interested in protecting themselves than leading people to God. Call me naïve or altruistic, but I still think the role of religious leaders is to lead people toward service and positive relationships with each other, not toward divisiveness and strife.
Time will tell, but I would bet that “faith and values” will become a hot topic in the 2012 general election, with some religious people becoming newsmakers by attempting to impose their beliefs down the throats of people who might not agree with their views. Religious people tend to make ugly situations far uglier by inserting God into the conversation and standing on a soapbox that they swear God built for “such a time as this.”
Instead of bringing people together, religious newsmakers seem to provide the instruments which people use to tear each other apart.
Then, they pray.
I am holding my breath and praying that I become a religious leader who can and does bring a message of God to people that will help knit the frayed edges of our American religious quilt. Why? Because so many of us, especially the ones who made religious news in 2010, did far more to push people to those edges, rather than bring them to the center where I believe the warmth of the presence of God lies.