December 30, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
This week the various religious periodicals and internet outlets issue their "Top Ten" religion news stories of 2002. Rather than add to the listings, Sightings will end the year commenting on the great increase in the number of stories to rank. The end of the year is also a time when for a minute we seniors are allowed to reminisce in efforts to provide some perspective on our own time. Here goes.
What leaps out at readers of the Top Ten lists is a) a realization of how big the religious story is these years; b) how multi-religious, multi-national, and necessarily global the coverage is; c) how out of place is griping that religion does not get noticed in media; d) how the trends of recent years counter Enlightenment assumptions about how religion would pale and wane; e) how unprotected religious institutions and leaders are now in public life and coverage; f) how ambiguous are the manifestations: is religion overall a force "for good" or "for ill?"
All the lists, for instance, rank the Roman Catholic clerical abuse story high; hyperbole-prone rankers, including Catholics, think it's the biggest Catholic trauma since the Protestant Reformation. They think that those of us who place it a bit lower than that have not grasped the meaning of the breakdown of trust in clergy, and the long way Catholics (and other religious groups?) have to go to recover the trust.
To find mention of Islam in any Top Ten global stories before 1979 (the year of the Iranian Revolution) you must use a microscope. Today, four or five of the Top Ten will deal with the one-fifth of the human race that is Muslim. If you can find conservative Protestant Christians peeping up in politics before the Goldwater campaign of 1964 or the Reagan years, you have better eyes than those of us who were covering them.
Follow the global categories of "Christian martyrs" and "ecclesiastical crime" in the computer reckonings and you are likely to be shocked to see how these sad stories represent the biggest growth industries. On the domestic front: debates over gays came "out" a couple of decades ago, and now dominate.
What is hard to find in the rankings are references to stories that reflect positively on any of the religions. It would be nice to think that media bias is responsible for this slant. It would be even nicer to think that more religions, and their leaders, might clean up their acts.
We are also aware that, away from the headlines, and not making news, are the positive manifestations, where faiths provide meaning and inspire acts of justice and mercy. Perhaps next year's Top Ten?