Religion continues to play a strong and often unrecognized role in world events. Middle-Eastern strife is often fueled by Shiite-Sunni distrust and animosity (as is the case between Saudi Arabia and Iran) or secular Muslims vs. strict Islamists (as in Turkey). A great deal of the political ideology battles in the United States are stoked by religious convictions.
When Constantine the Great and his sons acted for the church (first to make Christianity legal, then to make it the religion of the Roman state) something became possible that probably had not happened before. For the first time, Christians could kill other Christians in battle and believe they were doing a good and just thing. You could have sincere believers in two opposing armies fighting to the death. This was repeated endlessly in Europe, and reached a type of climax in the devastating American Civil War, where both sides believed God was on their side (e.g., the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”).
In 2013, religion and religious convictions had a strong presence in world events. Here are my top four religious events of the past year:
4. The Gay Marriage Battles. I think that 2013 will be seen as a watershed year in this controversy, which is almost entirely a religious debate. A Supreme Court decision seems to have thrown the issue back to the state level, and both courts and legislatures are moving to legalize gay marriage. My observation: this is not a reversible thing, and both sides know this. Once gay marriage becomes legal in any state, I don’t think it will ever be not legal again. Gay marriage advocates have been relentless and strategic in this debate, using their contacts in the entertainment industry, the media, and in politics to bring us where we are today.
3. The Birth of a New British Heir. To Americans, the British Royal Family has become another set of celebrities, something like the Kennedys or the Kardashians. Queen Elizabeth II has now been reigning for over 60 years, and it seems like little ever changes. Yet she cannot live or be queen forever, and I think that in the next few years, we may see some dramatic shifts. I would not be surprised at all if within five years, her grandson, William, was king and little Prince George, born on July 22, was the crown prince at an early age. I would also not be surprised to see him become king within thirty years, so his upbringing will include grooming to be king. We should remember that one of the titles of the British monarch is “Defender of the Faith,” and he or she is the official head of the Church of England. Anglicanism is strong and growing in some parts of the world (such as in Africa), and is undergoing a conservative resurgence and revival in many ways. How will a King William or a King George factor into this? We might be surprised, and those surprises may unfold quickly in the near future.
2. The Religious Politicization of the National Health Care Debate. What should be an economic and political matter has become a matter of religion for many people in this country. There is an assumption among many conservative evangelicals that all conservative evangelicals are opposed to the Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) and that support for this legislation is a betrayal of Christian principles. There are others who are equally passionate on the other side of the issue, and believe that the only course open to true Christian believers is to support healthcare for all Americans one way or another. To me, there is a certain dismay to see politicians on both sides mobilizing religious networks to their advantage. But I think this is far from over, and 2014 will become very nasty if this spills into our church life even more than it already has. Can a person who is adamantly opposed to Obamacare and is engaged in demonizing it coexist with a family who just received healthcare through this program? I hope this doesn’t split churches.
1. Pope Francis. This was a year of rapid and startling change in the Roman Catholic church. Joesph Ratzinger, the German Vatican insider who became Pope Benedict XVI, resigned. This had never really happened before. Once a pope, always a pope until death had been the rule for many centuries. Ratzinger/Benedict came off looking gracious and humble in all of this, and that obscures how controversial and disliked he was by many Catholics. To everyone’s surprise, he was quickly replaced by an elderly Argentine, Jorge Bergoglio, who in now Pope Francis. Bergoglio was no stranger to the inside workings of the Vatican, but he has already given the Catholic church a different image and brought hope to many. His words about income inequality and warning against the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism have already allowed some to condemn him as a liberal or a socialist (even a communist). But his desire to refocus the church’s mission to the poor is a refreshing turn, and many applaud him. It is silly for Americans to attempt to locate him somewhere in our political debates. He doesn’t care and doesn’t fit. He is not a Republican or a Democrat and never will be. But I think he will have an influential voice and great world-wide credibility for many years, and this makes him the most important religious story of 2013 for me. Time magazine agreed.
Nebraska Christian College