Look Back 2012


BOB ABERNETHY, host: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy and this is our annual look back at the top religion and ethics news of the year. Religion & Ethics managing editor Kim Lawton is here, and so are Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief of Religion News Service, and E.J. Dionne, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, professor at Georgetown University, and columnist for The Washington Post. Welcome to you all. Kim has put together a short video reminder of what happened in 2012.

KIM LAWTON: A wave of mass shootings renewed age-old theological discussions about evil, suffering and tragedy. Especially after the massacre at the Connecticut elementary school, many religious leaders repeated calls for stricter gun control measures. Some called it a pro-life issue. One of the mass shootings took place in a house of worship. In August, six people were killed when a gunman opened fire at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Once again, religion played an important role in the presidential election. For the first time ever, there were no white Protestants on either ticket. Although there wasn’t a lot of God-talk from President Obama or Mitt Romney, grassroots religious groups were active on both sides. Evangelical voters were divided during the primary season, but in the end they rallied around Romney, despite some concerns about voting for a Mormon candidate. Still, their support didn’t put him over the top. Obama narrowly won the Catholic vote, thanks to a strong showing among Latino Catholics.

The US Catholic bishops waged an active campaign against the Obama administration’s decision to require employers, including many faith-based employers, to provide free coverage of contraceptive services. The bishops said that would be a violation of religious freedom. The administration tried to offer a compromise, but the bishops—joined by many evangelical groups—said the compromise didn’t go far enough. Several religious institutions filed legal challenges to the policy. This summer, the bishops organized what they called a “Fortnight for Freedom” to highlight their concerns.

Faith-based groups continued to be divided over economic issues. Conservative activists supported massive cuts to the federal budget, arguing that it’s immoral to leave debt to future generations. But a broad-based interfaith coalition argued that it was immoral to make cuts that would hurt the poor. To underscore that point, a group of Catholic sisters organized a project called Nuns on the Bus, where they crisscrossed the country speaking out against the federal budget proposed by Congressman, and vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan.

Catholic sisters generated headlines on another front as well. The Vatican issued a harsh rebuke of the umbrella group that represents the majority of American nuns. It accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of what it called “serious doctrinal problems,” a charge the nuns denied. They began a time of dialogue with bishops appointed by the Vatican to oversee them. Meanwhile, lay Catholics held a series of rallies in support of the sisters.

Yet another kind of nones also made news—the “n-o-n-e-s.” According to the Pew Research Center, a record high number of Americans—one in five—now describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. Many of these so-called nones held a rally in Washington to show their clout. But the nones are not completely secular. A new survey by Pew and this program found that two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they do believe in God or a universal spirit. More than half describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Advocates of gay marriage saw new momentum. In the November elections, three more states legalized same-sex marriage—the first time it had been approved in ballot initiatives. And voters in Minnesota rejected a proposed ban on gay marriage. Both sides of the debate were galvanized by the Supreme Court’s announcement that it will be taking up two cases with national implications in the spring.

Ten years after the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis exploded, a high-ranking priest in Philadelphia became the first church official to be convicted for failing to report abuse. Monsignor William Lynn was found guilty of child endangerment and sentenced to up to six years in prison. And in Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for not reporting the discovery of child pornography on a priest’s computer. Finn’s sentence of two-year’s probation was suspended. He was the first bishop to be criminally sanctioned.

There were leadership transitions for several major religious groups. New Orleans pastor Fred Luter became the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination which was founded in support of slavery. In England, Justin Welby, a former oil executive who had been a bishop for just one year, was selected to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. And in Egypt, Bishop Tawadros was selected as the new Coptic pope, succeeding Pope Shenouda the Third, who died in March. By tradition, he was selected by a blindfolded boy who picked his name out of a crystal bowl.

ABERNETHY: Kim, thank you for that survey.

LAWTON: Thank you.

ABERNETHY: We’re all mourning, as everyone else is, the slaughter in Connecticut. What do you hear from religious leaders? What are they saying about what happened and how to respond to it?

Managing editor Kim LawtonLAWTON: Well, it’s interesting how situations like this always seem to bring a lot of people back to the spiritual, and you hear people looking to scriptures for consolation, even the president doing that; a lot of theological talk about if there is a God why would God let this happen? And is this evil or was it mental illness, and sin or sickness—lots of those kinds of interesting questions. What’s going on in our society that things like this happen? And then, of course, you got to the political and you heard the calls for gun control, more gun control, and a lot of that was coming from the religious community and a lot of religious activists really wanting to engage on that issue.

KEVIN ECKSTROM: What I’ve noticed, it’s different this time, it seems to be, is that for a long time your religious supporters of gun control, it was sort of, “Well, it would be really nice if we could do this, that, or the other thing.” Now there’s a real sense of defiance. You know, the dean of the National Cathedral here in D.C. said that the gun lobby is going to be no match for the cross lobby and that there’s a real sense that they’re tired of this, they’re not going to take this sitting down, and they’re really going to fight for some kind of change.

ABERNETHY: E.J., in many of your writings and in your new book, Our Divided Political Heart, you have referred to the great split in this country between those who put primary importance on individual things and those who put primarily importance on the community. Do you see any of that in the reaction to what happened in Connecticut?

E. J. Dionne, Brookings InstitutionE.J. DIONNE: Well, to some degree I do, and, you know, the argument in my book is that if you look at most of us Americans throughout our history we have never been all one thing or all the other. Of course, we all believe in individual liberty and, you know, we are individualists in a particular way, but the America way of individualism is not a radical individualism. It is tempered by our other commitment, which is a commitment to community. The very first word of the Constitution of the United States is the word “we,” and I don’t think we focus on that enough. The preamble to the Constitution describes common goals, and so I think in the wake of this awful event in Connecticut there really was a discussion where even Americans who believe passionately in the Second Amendment, who believe in an individual right to bear arms nonetheless said this right comes with obligations to the community, and the community has a right to impose rules in order to protect little children and other innocent people in the country, and I think Kevin’s right. I think at the end of this there did seem to be a very different quality to the discussion. We have been so passive as a nation in the face of one catastrophe after another like this, and I think the fact that it was 20 beautiful, innocent children who were killed here that I think it took a lot of people back and said maybe we should forget about the old politics of gun control and try to do something this time.

ABERNETHY: And would you care to venture any guess as to whether something meaningful can come from this?

DIONNE: I have some hope, and I think the religious community will play a central role in this, and I think you are going to hear their voices on an issue where, you know, in some ways surprisingly I don’t think their voice has been as strong as it might be now. I think a lot will depend on whether people who have in the past opposed gun regulation, like banning the big magazines and assault weapons and requiring universal background checks, when they say, “Wait a minute. That was then. That position doesn’t hold anymore.” And so a lot will not depend on traditional supporters of gun control except to the extent that they’re going to have to mobilize. A lot will depend on the consciences of people who have traditionally opposed these laws and have a change of heart.

ABERNETHY: And Kevin, six weeks ago, approximately, we had an election.

LAWTON: It feels like a lot longer than that.

ABERNETHY: What did you see? What patterns did you see? What lessons can you take from what the voting was?

Kevin Eckstrom, Religion News Service Editor-in-Chief ECKSTROM: Well, I think there are several things. One is that there was a big cautionary tale, I think, in this election for Republicans and for conservative religious groups who want to put an emphasis on kind of the hot-button social issues–gay marriage, abortion and this year rape, surprisingly. That’s not going to be enough to win anymore, and they can’t just rely on the traditional white evangelical base to win anymore, and they need to broaden the tent, and if they push too hard on some of these conservative, really conservative social issues it’s going to end up alienating, and I think we saw that in a lot of the Senate races. So I think the key take-away from this year’s election is that it’s going to be broader and what that means for religious people is that it’s going to need to be a broader set of issues that they get involved in.

LAWTON: One of my favorite quotes from after the election was Ralph Reed, who is one of the true champions of the religious right, and he said, “We have to do a better job of not looking like your dad’s religious right,” and he admitted that it was a wakeup call for them, not so much in changing their positions. They’re not going to be, you know, changing their positions on some of these hot-button issues, but I think he was recognizing how they come across and the people that they appeal to hasn’t been as successful as it was in the past because of the changes in our country.

DIONNE: Given the way some of these candidates talk, particularly about rape, I don’t even think that’s fair to your daddy to put him that way. I mean, there really was some extreme rhetoric that I think very much hurt this movement, but I also think there was a kind of sea-change here. My friends of the Public Religion Research Institute that has studied noting that only 35 percent of Barack Obama’s vote came from white Christians of various kinds he put together. Now that’s important. He still needed that 35 percent to win the election. His share of the Catholic vote in places like Ohio was very important to carrying states like Ohio. On the other hand, this was the first campaign, presidential campaign, where you really saw a candidate aggressively using a pro-choice position to win votes. Usually Democrats have been careful and a bit defensive about that. It’s the first campaign in which support for gay marriage clearly did not hurt a candidate, may have even helped Obama in some states. So I think we really did see a sea-change on cultural questions.

ABERNETHY: And there was a time when all of us were saying, “Wow, what are the evangelicals and others going to do with a Mormon candidate?” And it wasn’t an issue.

DIONNE: I think that’s actually heartening for us as a country.


DIONNE: I think it’s heartening for us as a country. No matter where you stood on the election between Romney and Obama, there really wasn’t a lot of expression of anti-Mormon feeling on any side, and I don’t even think there were, as far as I could tell, not even covert campaigns on this, and, you know, as we said before, white evangelicals—it was said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. Well, guess what? They did vote for a Mormon. So I think it’s good news for the country that we did not have, you know, real displays of bigotry that we often do have when you have a breakthrough candidate representing a new religious minority.

LAWTON: Of course, in some of that…

ABERNETHY: Is that tolerance or indifference?

LAWTON: Well, you know, I also think there was some anti-Obama stuff in there.

ECKSTROM: Oh, there’s no question about that.

LAWTON: And so when you start weighing it, well, yeah, I’m kind of uncomfortable theologically. I mean, I’m saying evangelicals were saying, “I’m uncomfortable theologically with a Mormon, but very politically uncomfortable with Barack Obama.” And when they did the calculus in the end, so in a sense that sort of made the Mormon issue a non-issue.

ECKSTROM: No, I agree with that entirely, but I do think that the fact that we didn’t see, say, the kind of bigotry that you saw visibly when John F. Kennedy ran…

LAWTON: Right, right.

ECKSTROM: … and whether it’s indifference or tolerance, it’s better than hostility.

LAWTON: There you go.

ABERNETHY: The Supreme Court is going to hear these two cases involving gay marriage, and gay marriage was a big issue in several states. What do you see going on there?

ECKSTROM: It seems to me that there’s a broad-based cultural shift underway. Now, I’m not at all saying that people are suddenly all in support gay marriage or that the issue is going to go away, but you saw this year, for example, a Gallup poll that said a majority of Americans saw homosexual relations as morally acceptable. First time ever. You saw a president, a sitting president for the first time come out and endorse same-sex marriage. You saw voters in three states not only allow same-sex marriage, but in a fourth state reject an attempt to ban it, which is equally as important, I think. So this issue is not done. It’s got a long ways to go, and in my experience covering this, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There’s often a backlash if people think it’s going too fast. So the Supreme Court may well put the brakes on all of this, but I think this year showed, in very stark relief, that this issue is moving much faster and much clearer, in a much clearer direction than I think it has in previous years.

LAWTON: Is this really…


LAWTON: Excuse me, I was just going to say it’s a really tough issue for the religious community in particular, because you have very different opinions within the religious community. I mean, some of the strongest opposition to this is coming from evangelicals, Roman Catholics, although, you know, obviously at the grassroots people are divided. Younger evangelicals tend to be more tolerant of it, but you still have strong opposition from people who see this as an issue of faith, a moral issue, biblical, biblically mandated, and so that makes it tough. There are religious groups who call it an equality issue and support gay marriage as a matter of justice and equality, but a lot of arguments happening within congregations as well.

DIONNE: I think the most important political event on the gay rights issue seem to have nothing to do with politics. It was a decision 30 or 40 years ago for gays and lesbians to just come out and declare themselves. That changed the country’s attitudes over time, because no one, even someone with quite traditional views, no one who has a dear friend, a dear relative who is homosexual can feel the same way about it again, and I think that’s what you’re seeing on gay marriage, and there is no issue that is more closely linked to age than gay marriage. Attitudes towards gay marriage, younger people are overwhelmingly for gay marriage, and even younger socially conservative people are much less hostile to gay marriage than older Americans who are more uncomfortable with it, and so what it feels like is an issue that really is a matter of time, that in just, you know, eight years, from 2004 to 2012, the change is breathtaking in attitudes towards this.

ABERNETHY: I was impressed this past year with our own survey and other data about the people, the growing number of people, almost 20 percent now, who say they have no religious affiliation whatsoever. We call them “the nones.” Is that something that the churches and religious people in general ought to be pretty worried about? That’s going up fast.

LAWTON: Well, there’s been a lot of discussion about it within the religious community and, you know, scholars are sort of debating, is this really an actual change or are people just more willing to describe what has always been their position? But nonetheless it is, it’s growing at, you know, an incredibly fast rate, much more so than many other groups, and yes, I’ve heard a lot of discussion within religious communities. After the survey came out there were all sorts of churches that were preaching, doing sermons about it, and doing studies, but, you know, the interesting thing, our survey found that the majority of people, not the atheists and the agnostics who are part of the unaffiliated group, but the people who say, “I’m just nothing in particular,” 80 percent, more than 80 percent of those people say, ”I’m not looking either. I’m not looking for a religion that’s right for me.” So I think the challenge for some of these religious communities is how do you interact with, reach out to, whatever your language is, with people who really don’t want to be reached out to, or, you know, are happy with where they are?

post13-lookback-2012DIONNE: And I think this should alarm the traditional religious communities because the number of nones, the n-o-n-e-s, is especially high among Americans under 30.


DIONNE: And it’s not just, we always say, well, young people are less religious than older people, which is often the case, but this generation is less religiously affiliated than earlier generations of young people. This is a real, a real change, and I think that many of these young people say they are spiritual, but they are not necessarily looking for churches or synagogues or mosques, and I think it is a real challenge that requires a response by all of the religious traditions, and whether, for example, and Bob Putnam’s work suggests this, a certain sort of right-wing tone to some of the religious congregations turns off younger people who are not as conservative politically as the older generations, and I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion of that.

ABERNETHY: Kevin, you and many others have noted what’s going on, what has been going on in Europe for a long time, dwindling religious interest. Is that finally coming to the United States after 50 years of prediction?

ECKSTROM: Well, I think what’s so interesting to me this year is how much more visible, kind of, secularism is, or non-religion or unbelief, and it’s not, you know—traditionally when we think of religion we think of churches and synagogues and mosques, and we never quite think of this group of people who, you know, as Kim said, really have no interest in it, and that always seemed as least mentally that it was a fairly small group, you know, kind of on the edges. There’s a study that came out this week that said unbelievers and the religiously unaffiliated are the third largest group in the world. There’s as many unaffiliated people in this world as there are Catholics. And I think what it does, it’s a giant mental shift to realize that the religious landscape that we had sort of thought we knew is actually much different, I think.

DIONNE: And I think your point, Bob, is really interesting, because we Americans have resisted those trends that we saw in Europe over several generations and, you know, I don’t think we have a clear answer yet. Are Americans becoming more European, secular in their approach to religion? But it’s a first time you’re seeing data that suggests that’s even possible. And I think that is something we’re going to be grappling with for another couple of decades.

ABERNETHY: We are close to running out of time here. But before…

LAWTON: And so much more to talk about.

ABERNETHY: Before we do, let me ask you as you look back now, from this vantage point, whether you see something that happened in this past year that did not get the attention you think it deserved. Who wants to go?

DIONNE: I just wanted to mention the civic vitality of the African-American churches. You know, when we’re talking about the decline of religion, a lot of emphasis on the campaign in terms of the voter turnout among minorities is on the Obama political operation, and believe me, everybody on both sides says it was an amazing operation, but I think the response of the African-American church to some of these voter suppression laws as they saw them was really impressive, and I think we need to revisit the role of the black churches, a vital civic institution in our country.


ECKSTROM: In all of the back and forth over the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Libya, you know, it was all blamed on this movie that came out, and then afterwards President Obama came out and gave a very profound speech about religion and religion’s role in the world and how religions in the East and the West have to learn to get along together better. I thought it was probably the most profound religion speech that President Obama’s ever given, and I think a lot of it got lost amid all the talk about why this attack happened.


LAWTON: And maybe broadening out E.J.’s point a little bit, you know, I always get frustrated in a political year because we spend so much time talking about politics and issues and as religion reporters we cover how are the faith-based groups doing and how are they interacting? And we ignore the just real religious life that goes on inside congregations and houses of worship, individuals and how they relate to God directly, or you know, whatever their spiritual practice, but also how they relate in their families and in their communities, and I think that’s an issue that we get so caught up in the politics and the issues that we forget covering religion is sometimes about bigger things than just politics.

ABERNETHY: And an individual’s relationship with God, not just with the politics.

LAWTON: Exactly, exactly, and there’s a lot going on there. I mean, we touched on it a little bit with this survey with the rising numbers of people who aren’t affiliated with a particular religion, but in fact 80 percent of Americans still are affiliated, and while rising numbers aren’t, 87 are, and they are very involved.

ECKSTROM: There’s more to life than politics is a good way to end an election year. That’s a good thought.

LAWTON: Hard to believe, but yes.

ABERNETHY: Imagine you saying that. I’m sorry to say our time is up now. Thank you for a great conversation. To E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution, Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton of this program. Next week, our look ahead to the most important religion news we expect to be covering in 2013.