For our annual special program looking back at the top religion and ethics news stories of 2016, host Bob Abernethy talks with managing editor Kim Lawton, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and Jerome Socolovsky, editor-in-chief of Religion News Service.
BOB ABERNETHY, host: Welcome, I’m Bob Abernethy, it’s good to have you with us for our annual look back at the top religion news stories of 2016. E.J. Dionne is here. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, a columnist for the Washington Post, and a professor at Georgetown University. Jerome Socolovsky is the editor-in-chief of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton is managing editor of this program.
As preparation for our discussion, Kim produced a survey of some of the major religion stories of the past year.
KIM LAWTON, correspondent: People of faith were involved on many fronts during the 2016 election season. Strong support from evangelical voters played a major role in Donald Trump’s victory. According to exit polls, about 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him. But several high-profile religious conservatives had spoken out against Trump, expressing concern about his character and his rhetoric. Vigorous debate continues in the evangelical community over political involvement.
Throughout the year, many religious groups criticized the negative rhetoric on the campaign trail, especially against Muslims, immigrants, women and African-Americans. There was particular concern about calls to ban Muslims from entering the US. In the wake of the election, hate crimes against minorities have been on the rise. Some faith leaders urged Trump to reconsider cabinet picks who in the past have made anti-Muslim statements.
The unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia heightened the importance of the Supreme Court as an election issue. People of faith were sharply divided over President Obama’s selection of Merrick Garland to replace Scalia. With one Justice missing, the Court declined to rule on a controversial case about whether religious nonprofits should be required to make contraception services available to their employees. Citing legal briefs with possible compromises, the eight Justices told lower courts to revisit the issue. In another closely-watched case, the justices deadlocked over a challenge to President Obama’s immigration-related executive orders. The split decision left in place a lower court ruling that said the president lacked the authority to shield up to 4 million immigrants from deportation.
Pope Francis highlighted migration issues several times during 2016, including during a trip to the US-Mexico border where he led a Mass. He also traveled to Greece, where he and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew tried to focus international attention on the desperate situation faced by migrants and refugees around the world. The two urged the international community to do more. Francis brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Italy with him after the visit.
The pope generated much debate with his document on the family in which he called for a more pastoral approach in dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics. He also raised eyebrows by traveling to Sweden to help launch commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Faith-based humanitarian groups were overwhelmed by international crises. In June, the UN announced that it had documented 65.3 million forcibly displaced people around the world-- the largest number since the agency began keeping records. Escalating fighting in Syria and Iraq generated enormous suffering. Civilians inside war zones faced severe food shortages and had little access to medical care. There were horrific reports of human rights abuses. Meanwhile, Hurricane Matthew left nearly a million people in Haiti still in dire need.
Religious minorities in several countries continued to face violence and oppression. The US State Department issued a declaration accusing ISIS of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other minority groups. In Pakistan, more than 70 people were killed in an Easter Sunday bombing targeting Christians. Dozens of Egyptian Coptic Christians were killed by a suicide bombing on the grounds of the historic Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. And in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims continued to face persecution that some rights groups said has now risen to the level of ethnic cleansing.
In this country, amid ongoing high-profile police shootings of African-Americans, and some targeted shootings of police, faith-based groups continued supporting protests and calling for reforms in the criminal justice system. Many also worked for racial reconciliation.
Religious groups continued wrestling over issues surrounding sexuality. Several denominations debated changes in their positions on gay marriage. New disputes erupted around transgender rights, including access to gender specific bathrooms.
A broad coalition of faith groups supported Native Americans in North Dakota in their protests over a proposed oil pipeline. The tribes said the pipeline would violate their sacred lands and could threaten water supplies. The protesters celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision not to issue a permit for the pipeline. But they said they were still concerned about what may happen in the future.
And, the religious world lost several well-known leaders in 2016. Among them, boxer and Muslim convert Muhammad Ali; Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel; Catholic television entrepreneur Mother Angelica; Evangelical activist and author Tim LaHaye; Billy Graham crusade song leader Cliff Barrows; and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was known for the spiritual themes in his music.
ABERNETHY: Thank you, Kim. That was terrific. Well, E.J., we had an election in 2016, right?
E.J. DIONNE (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): We did, indeed.
ABERNETHY: Where does that leave us? What are the messages of what happened?
DIONNE: Well first, thanks, Kim, for a really powerful piece, once again. I think that if we went—ran through tape of people like us talking about America over the last ten years, we would say, “Well, we are more divided now than we ever were.” And if ever that statement is true it’s right now. We can’t even agree on how to interpret this election. Do you focus on the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million, or do you focus on the fact that Donald Trump is president of the United States? We are divided by region and where we live. People in big metro areas voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. People in more rural and small-town America voted overwhelmingly for Trump. There was a survey that showed that most Republicans didn’t know someone who voted for Clinton, and most Democrats didn’t know somebody who voted for Trump. It’s not just that we mistrust the politicians on the other side. We don’t seem to really like each other very much as American right now, and that’s a very troubling thing for the country going forward, and I think we are in for a very difficult and, I think, divisive period in our history.
LAWTON: And those divides go into the religious community as well. Catholics were very divided between the two candidates, and even with the evangelicals, although 81 percent ended up voting for Trump, there were very strong divisions, more so than we’ve seen in recent years among evangelicals, or between generations of evangelicals, between the old guard, some called it, and younger evangelicals, women, men, and so a lot of these faith groups are also facing those same kinds of division.
DIONNE: And if I could just jump in before you come in, Jerome, I think that something we’re really going to have to think about is whether there really was a religious vote here at all. It struck me, for example, about Catholics, that white Catholics voted pretty well like white Americans, and Latino Catholics voted pretty well like Latino Americans. Was this about religion, was it about tribe, was it about identity? Obviously, identity fits in with race and ethnicity, but I think it’s something that religious people are going to have to look at. Is religion really a leaven, or are we just dividing along party, along lines where religion makes very little actual difference at all?
JEROME SOKOLOVSKY (Editor in Chief, Religion News Service): Yeah, I think that’s a very good point, E.J. I think for many people religion is almost, or the term evangelical is almost synonymous with patriotism. I’m an evangelical, I’m an American patriot. And that’s why we see numbers like 81 percent of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump. They didn’t do it out of evangelicalism, but they did it out of what they perceived as patriotism.
LAWTON: And some evangelicals even said they wanted to move away from using that term, because they didn’t like how others in their community acted during this election season, and that was an interesting discussion that I think is continuing.
DIONNE: And feeding the divisions is a perception on the part of conservative white evangelicals that liberals are so deeply hostile to religion that they will be marginalized, and that’s one thing I’m pushing against my analysis. If you talk to conservative evangelicals, they’ll say we voted this way because we really didn’t trust the other side. Now, liberals would argue back that they are not hostile to religion. I think one of the untold stories is how much cooperation there was between the Obama administration and faith-based groups in the provision of social services. Nonetheless, that feeling of hostility against them is very strong in the white evangelical community.
LAWTON: Right, that notion—they call it “religious freedom,” that their freedom to exercise their beliefs, to live out what they believe, especially on some of these issues like sexuality, they feel like that’s been under fire, and that did fuel a lot of the votes for Trump.
SOKOLOVSKY: Right, and something we heard a lot was—often it came back to the Supreme Court. Who would the next president choose to replace Antonin Scalia?
LAWTON: Right, right.
DIONNE: And I think for some it was an absolute driving reason, and for others it was a convenient excuse to do what they were inclined to do anyway, but the Court was there.
ABERNETHY: E.J., why were so many people misled or wrong about what the results of the election would be?
DIONNE: Well, you know, if you look at the popular vote they weren’t wrong to assert that a majority of Americans wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump for president. They didn’t. What people did not anticipate is that every single one of the battleground states would fall to Donald Trump by a relatively small margin. It’s about 1 percent in each of the key states, 77,000 votes, and I think that there was a—people did not expect, I think, the new turnout for Donald Trump. When I look at the numbers what I see are Republican or conservative-leaning working-class voters who skipped the last election, who couldn’t get themselves to vote for President Obama, but couldn’t really vote for Mitt Romney. And in sort of the very red counties in places like Pennsylvania, Trump turned out a new vote that hadn’t been there before. That is my sense of what happened that people did not take into account.
ABERNETHY: I want to go on. I want to leave some time for a look at the terrible, terrible tragedies that have been going on in the Middle East. I mean every day on the front page of the newspaper you see another child who’s been killed, or something like that, You were there, Kim, and you know something about that.
LAWTON: Well, it’s just such a difficult situation, and the impact on the humanitarian level is so devastating, and it’s overwhelming. The international community really doesn’t know what to do. We had Pope Francis, even in December, raising, talking to Assad, the president of Syria, and asking him to do more to stop the violence. It was a really unusual letter the Vatican had made public. The unusual part was the Vatican made it public. But people have been crying out, “Stop the violence.” You’ve got faith-based groups trying to do what they can to help the displaced people and the civilians and provide shelter and food and medicine. But yet the moral tragedy just continues.
ABERNETHY: But why isn’t more being done to help all these people?
DIONNE: Well I think we’re going to have a long moral conversation with ourselves for some years, particularly about Aleppo and the massive destruction of human life there, and I think a lot of Americans agreed with President Obama that if we get involved, we could cause nothing but problems for ourselves, and may not resolve it. But I think there’s a strong body of opinion, including people that are sympathetic to the president, as well as people who aren’t, who say perhaps if America had intervened earlier we could have contained this damage, and, you know, that’s a debate that will go on for a long time. But we really chose as a nation to stand by while this was going on, and I think it’s something that’s going to be on the consciences of everyone, and obviously the Russians and the Assad regime, I think, are going to suffer some blowback over a long period of time, because this destruction has left a lot of anger and bitterness behind. I think you saw that in the attack in Turkey.
ABERNETHY: And a generation of young kids coming out of these camps, these refugee camps, I would guess, without very much education, but with a lot of hatred.
LAWTON: Well that’s one of the things you hear from the human rights groups and humanitarian groups are concern for the children, the immediate concern about their safety, and so many of them have lost families. They’re on their own, unaccompanied refugees, but they aren’t able to go to school, they haven’t had stability, they’ve been traumatized. What does that bode for the future? And those are some serious questions.
SOKOLOVSKY: Yeah if I could just come back to the, you know, what’s happening in the Middle East. I think there are forces there that may be beyond our control, I reported from the area in the mid-’90s for 4 years, and I remember being in Damascus and being told and experiencing that that was the safest place on Earth at the time, but it really, it was a multi-, not a multi-, partly multi-ethnic, but it was a pluralistic state with different religious groups. And what we’re seeing now is a kind of breakdown of that model of state in the Middle East, that it, you know—Sunnis are sorting into their groups and Shias into their states. There’s a huge kind of sorting going on there.
DIONNE: And what’s scary is that it took a fairly, a brutal dictatorship to get Syria to hold the thing together. And once there was an attack on this dictatorship, it fell apart.
SOKOLOVSKY: And Iraq as well before that, with Saddam Hussein.
DIONNE: The other thing is the blowback in Europe, where Angela Merkel’s, I think, brave decision to let in the refugees from the Middle East has created an explosion in European politics. Merkel faces an election this year . There is a rise of new movements on the far right, and a new political party, and this is scrambling politics in Europe in a way that’s very disturbing. And in a way this is of a piece with Donald Trump’s election here, because many of the people who are sympathetic to Trump, people like Steve Bannon of Breitbart has sympathy for some of those parties on the far right in Europe that are reacting against immigration. Immigration is an issue that is driving politics all over the democracies in Europe, and our own democracy.
LAWTON: And the rising terrorist incidents that we’ve seen, especially some of these lone-wolf attacks, are fueling the fears, what are then fueling the concern here in the United States, that we don’t want people here. We don’t want refugees here, we don’t know what they’re going to do, and that then creates this very difficult policy decision, and you have—this past year you had a lot of faith groups, and actually a very diverse coalition of faith groups, concerned that the United States not close its door to refugees or immigrants, but then the question is how do you make that happen? And how do you make that happen under the Trump administration?
ABERNETHY: And also, while we’re talking about stuff back here, are religious groups doing enough to try to deal with these awful problems, the immigration, the—everything?
LAWTON: Faith groups have been involved in some of these conversations. Whether they’ve done enough, of course, it’s probably never enough, depending on who you speak with, but the conversations that we’re having, both, I think, concerns about the criminal justice system in America, the police shootings and all of that, but there’s also been concern about some of the rhetoric that we’ve been hearing in this country, some of it tied to the election and various candidates, various campaigns, but concerns that racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, and some of these negative kinds of feelings, that maybe have always been there but are coming to the fore in a new way. So you’ve seen hate crimes on the rise.
ABERNETHY: But has that been spurred by the campaign?
DIONNE: Well, I think it has. But I think the other thing interesting about Black Lives Matter is that you’ve seen a lot of ferment between the African-American community—the Black Lives Matter movement, unlike the civil rights movement, did not primarily come out of the churches. The black church has been, is one of the most important institutions in our society, but the leadership of Black Lives Matter was younger and more secular. And while there are a lot of clergy involved, there’s a lot of dialogue involved, I think we’re going to sort of watch this movement, because it’s sort of a new stage in African-American politics in which the church, rather than being the leading force, is finding its way, and as to how it relates to something that arose spontaneously.
SOKOLOVSKY: But I think it does bring us back to the campaign, in that there was a reaction to the Black Lives Matter in a kind of white-identity movement that was—in that whites are feeling like another minority in America.
ABERNETHY: Is it the white Protestants that in the past year fell in number below 50 percent for the first time in the country’s history?
DIONNE: Yes, well, white Christians as a whole, depending on how you count it, partly because of the large number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, so there is this feeling that, you know, you’ve got a sense during the campaign “what about us?” was the question that many of Donald Trump’s white working-class supporters asked, and, you know, some of that was about backlash, and some of that was also about economic troubles, and when you look at the splits, where you had some very affluent parts of the country who seemed out of touch with those parts of the country that were really hammered by the economy, and I think we’re going to need a very honest conversation that’ll be difficult about how much of this was backlash on race and immigration, but how much of it was also a kind of cry or protest saying you know, our lives are in real trouble, the rising suicide rates among older white working-class people—a group of psychologists referred to them as “despair deaths.” I mean, I think we need to sort of—if I may say, one of the greatest experiences that happened to me in the campaign was giving a talk where I said my hat would say “Make America Empathetic Again.” And this very nice man made two hats and sent me one, and I think we do need to find empathy across lines that we do not have. We do need to empathize with the parents of African-American kids who get shot. We also need to empathize with older white workers who have been displaced, and they have a lot in common with African-Americans, but we don’t talk about it that way.
ABERNETHY: Let me ask you to think back on everything that happened in the past year, and what, in our discussions of it, what was left out?
LAWTON: So many things we weren’t able to get to. For me, I think about—we were talking about some of the rising divisions and the rising hate crimes. One thing that happened this past year that a lot of people didn’t pay attention to was I saw a lot of religious groups coming together to speak out against some of the ugly things that they were seeing and to speak in favor of dialogue and conversations, and in some ways this election has galvanized some of those folks who said to me, you know, this has really been a wake-up call for us, that we want to have our values out there, and we’re going to work harder to make that happen, so...
ABERNETHY: And a wake-up call about a lot of poor people and nearly desperate people in this country who feel that they have been not taken care of well enough by everybody else.
LAWTON: So hopefully in the faith community we’ll see if they actually live it out, but they’ve been talking about being more proactive, so that was something that didn’t get a lot of attention that I saw.
SOKOLOVSKY: I would look abroad, specifically at China and Beijing’s attempts to try to control the growth of religion, of Christian churches, and also the future of Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama—concerns about who will be his successor.
DIONNE: I think the other untold story, or undertold story, we’ve chatted about it some over the years—the enormous rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans, particularly among young people, You’re up to 35 percent or more of people under 30 who don’t affiliate with a religious tradition, and I think this is a real challenge to the stewards of those traditions. They tend to talk—and it’s natural enough to people already inside. In the meantime, lots of young Americans do not feel really talked to, cannot really relate to these traditions, and I think that’s a big challenge to faith and to those who are its stewards.
ABERNETHY: But just because they’re not affiliated with an institution doesn’t mean that they're not religious.
DIONNE: Well, there is that. I mean there’s a big talk, there has been a lot of talk about “spiritual but not religious.” Nonetheless, if large numbers of people exist, choose to evoke their spirituality outside the traditions, what happens to them? What happens to the churches, the synagogues, the mosques? What happens to the active organizations? And this is a problem for them.
ABERNETHY: Our time is up, I’m sorry to say. Thanks to E.J. Dionne, Jerome Socolovsky, and Kim Lawton.