With this release Monday’s Sightings says good-bye to 2013. Appropriately, I want to use this moment to take a retrospective look at religion-in-the-news during the past year.
The Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) was eight years old when, in 1957, I first tagged along with its pioneers as they investigated American religion. (See the reference below for Richard Ostling’s fine retelling of these pioneers’ struggles and successes from 1949 to 1974). Looking back, it is hard to picture the difficulties that religion newswriters faced in the early decades of their profession. Most newspaper editors equated religion with denominations, and relegated articles to a back page in the Saturday issue, where church advertisements were ghettoized. Now, religion-related stories daily make the front page, prime-time, and top blogs.
This month the RNA polled its members and asked them to pick the top stories for 2013. Two denominations, Lutheran and Presbyterian, tied for 14th place: the ELCA-Lutherans for choosing Elizabeth Eaton as Presiding Bishop and the PCUSA-Presbyterians for exemplifying the decline in “mainline” denominational-bodies (which also saw many groups split off). Obviously, important news occurred on different fronts, most of them in the “public religion” category, which has inspired Sightings.
The religious Far Right, which has long dominated the news, dropped off the top ten and top twenty lists. Instead, the lists included the decision of the United States Supreme Court to clear the way for legal, same-sex marriage at the federal level, an act that evoked strong pro-and-con reactions among denominations. If this was the third most cited event, the fourth had to do with the executive branch, as the federal administration tried to accommodate the interests of those who argued that the Affordable Care Act, in some of its reaches, trampled on religious freedom.
Though the religion pages of 1949 and the 1950s concentrated on the activities of the congregations down the block, these years we take it for granted that local congregation members and others are familiar with and curious about “world religions." Naturally, Islam in the Middle East was first on this front, and religion-related violence, as in Myanmar and Kenya, was ranked seventh overall. Surveys showing that more Jews than ever claim to have no religion ranked 8th in attracting interest.
Oh, did I mention it? The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy (following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI—an event which had no antecedents in the last 600 years) came in first and second. Bergoglio, now “Pope Francis,” was so (deservedly) favored that it left everything else trailing far behind. Count on Sightings’ commentators to keep providing copy on this prime newsmaker.
On this roundup day let me also pause to note and call to readers’ attention another source, which reaches me weekly, the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI), invented and fostered by the tireless Robert P. Jones. I’ll append a recent item by PRRI for readers who want to track what Jones calls “findings.” He knows how to inspire curiosity with his report on “Percentages who. . .” We learn that 27% of Americans say that God plays a role in the outcomes of sporting events while 53% of Hispanics are “currently Catholic.” Elaborating, PRRI finds that Catholic affiliation among Hispanics is sharply declining, thanks to inroads by Protestants or by those who join the ranks of the “religiously unaffiliated.”
Looking back at 2013, the fifty-some authors who contributed to the Thursday Sightingsand, I, who wrote some fifty Monday columns, never had to scrounge around to find items of potential public interest.
I anticipate another year of excitement on the religion front and bid you all a New Year full of promise.
References and Further Reading:
Ostling, Richard. “Reporting Religion: The Religion Newswriters Association.”Theology Today 31:3 (October 1974). Accessed December 22, 2013.http://www.rna.org/?page=history.
Raushenbush, Paul Brandeis. “The Top 10 Religion Stories of 2013.” Huffington Post, December 16, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/religion-stories-2013-_n_4434068.html.
Henegan, Tom. “U.S. religion news journalists choose Top Ten religion news stories of 2014.” Reuters U.S. Edition, December 16, 2013. http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2013/12/16/u-s-religion-news-journalists-choose-top-ten-news-stories-of-2014.
Jones, Robert P. “13 Top Religion and Politics Findings from 2013.” Public Religion Research Institute, December 16, 2013. http://publicreligion.org/2013/12/13-top-religion-and-politics-findings-from-2013/.
Photo Credit: neneo / Shutterstock.com
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.