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 2014. 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. Kevin Eckstrom is the editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. And Kim Lawton is managing editor of this program.

As preparation for our discussion, here is Kim's survey of the major religion stories of the past year:

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Across the US, a series of incidents where unarmed African-Americans were killed by white police officers prompted a reexamination of inequities in the law enforcement system and of ongoing racial injustice in other areas of society. Clergy helped lead peaceful protests in many cities, while houses of worship hosted town hall meetings. Religious leaders from across the spectrum urged dialogue and new efforts toward racial reconciliation.

Muslim militants launched a brutal campaign to establish what they called a new “caliphate” or Islamic state in parts of Syria and Iraq. ISIS particularly targeted religious minorities, including Christians, members of the ancient Yazidi faith, as well as others. Religious leaders and human rights groups urged strong international action to stop what many called a new “religious genocide.” Undaunted, ISIS beheaded hostages, including Americans, on video, and used the images as recruiting tools. Mainstream Muslim groups strongly condemned the actions of ISIS, describing them as “un-Islamic and morally repugnant.” Many American Muslim groups initiated new projects to combat violent extremism.

The massive numbers of people displaced by both ISIS violence and the ongoing Syrian civil war generated what the United Nations described as the “worst refugee crisis since World War II.” Almost 11 million Syrians have been displaced since 2011, nearly half of the pre-war population. Many have ended up in neighboring countries, whose own economies have been taxed by the influx. Faith-based groups and other humanitarian groups mobilized to provide aid, but were severely burdened by the huge scope of needs.

Another humanitarian emergency erupted in West Africa amid the worst outbreak ever of Ebola. Faith groups played a prominent role in responding to the spread of the virus, which has caused thousands of deaths. The outbreak prompted new conversations about the ethics of prevention and whether to use experimental drugs.

Pope Francis continued to make waves throughout the Catholic Church with his message of humility, openness, and reaching out to the poor and vulnerable. He took steps to reform the Vatican finances and created a new sex abuse commission. He also led a meeting of bishops where controversial issues were openly debated, such as welcoming gays, cohabiting couples, and Catholics who are divorced and remarried. Though no changes were made to church teachings, the new tone led to speculation that some may be looming. Francis remains hugely popular, although conservatives and liberals alike were troubled by some of his actions.

As same-sex marriage became legal in even more US states, religious denominations continued to wrestle over how to respond. The Presbyterian Church USA allowed pastors to perform gay marriages in states where it’s legal. But in the United Methodist Church, there were high-profile church trials of ministers who performed such ceremonies. There was even growing debate among evangelicals over whether to accept same-sex marriage.

Religious groups were sharply divided over a Supreme Court ruling in the so-called Hobby Lobby case. In a 5-4 decision, the justices said despite a requirement in the Affordable Care Act, some for-profit corporations cannot be forced to provide contraception coverage which their owners say violates their religious beliefs. Cases on the issue involving religious nonprofits continued to wind their way through the courts.

American religious groups were also divided amid heightened violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Jews and many Christians supported Israel in this summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza, while other Christians and Muslims condemned what they called the disproportionate number of civilian deaths and property destruction. People of all faiths prayed for a lasting peace, even as tensions around religious sites in Jerusalem continued to rise.

The plight of undocumented immigrants was a significant concern for religious groups, especially as tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children flooded into the US, largely from Central America. Faith groups helped care for them and lobbied for policy changes.

Finally, 2014 was the Year of the Bible on the big screen. From Noah and Moses to the Son of God and the End Times, biblical epics were big at the box office, bringing in tens of millions of dollars—even if their interpretations of Scripture didn’t always sit well with the faithful.

ABERNETHY: Kim, thank you for that. That was terrific.

LAWTON: Thank you.

ABERNETHY: Let's begin with race. The aftermath of the killings of young, unarmed blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and elsewhere, set off not only protests but a demand for a national conversation about race—a new one. E.J., how is that going?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think we've been having the conversation for a very long time, and up to now I think what's disturbing is we usually have the same conversation over and over again. You have the sense this time—and I think Kim's excellent piece captured some of this—this time there may have been a kind of breakthrough. Not only in the African-American community, which is obviously very upset with what is happening to young African-American men, but in large parts of other communities, including the white community, there's a realization that there is a real problem here. I think in particular the choking incident in New York really bothered a lot of people, where there seemed no possible justification in that case. And so I like to think there may be some hope here. I also think there's hope on another front, which is over the last couple of years there's been a real dialogue between left and right on our sentencing laws and on how we are putting away, again, especially minority men into prison for a very long time for very minor charges, particularly drug charges. And I think you may actually see some action on that this year, precisely because it's not simply the kind of ideological Issue we always seem to yell at each other about.

ABERNETHY: Where are the churches in all this?

LAWTON: They've been very involved. They have been sponsoring some of these conversations. They've been really involved in a lot of the protests and making statements. Even conservative evangelical groups, which haven't been at the forefront of race relations, have been out there on this one, have been talking about the need for reconciliation. Some people may differ over policy changes that may need to happen. But the fact that you have so many religious groups out there but also leading the conversations is something that is different as well.

KEVIN ECKSTROM: I think what's interesting is that you have a lot of white churches talking about what is—ostensibly what may be seen as a black problem, where you’ve got white churches calling their predominantly white flocks to account for how did we get into this mess? What is there about the system that we have helped build that is so punishing to black people or to black men in particular? So there's a lot of soul-searching in white churches but especially, like Kim said, evangelical and conservative white churches.

DIONNE: I think you saw it in the demonstrations after Michael Brown, but especially after the Michael—the Eric Garner case in Staten Island. The demonstrations you had in cities around the country were very multiracial. In some cities that are predominantly white most of the demonstrators were white. I think that suggested there is at least some call to conscience here of the whole country and not simply the African-American community, which has been trying to get through on this issue for a long time.

ABERNETHY: Let me turn your attention to the Middle East and especially to the savagery of ISIS and all the consequences of that.

LAWTON: I think this has been one of the biggest challenges for the world, but certainly even for faith groups this year. For Muslims in the US and around the world to have to differentiate themselves to say this is not our brand of Islam. And we did see groups trying to stand up and do that in a more unified way, in a vocal way than maybe they have in the past, and it's been a real challenge for some of the faith groups in the Middle East. Certainly Christians and the ancient group, Yazidis, and others have really faced the brunt of this. And people, as I said in my story, are calling this genocide. It's that serious a situation.

ABERNETHY: And the numbers are just astonishing, just awful, about the number of people who have been killed or been displaced from their homes. What did you say? You were just back in the Middle East. What did you say?

LAWTON: In Syria right now, almost half of the prewar population has been displaced either inside Syria or to the neighboring countries. So you have these situations—I was just in Turkey and meeting with refugees there. Story after story after story of people just fleeing homes destroyed, businesses destroyed, being threatened to death, convert to Islam or get out, in the case of those who left Iraq. And so just incredible stories of persecution going on, on the basis of faith.

ECKSTROM: And it's not just a challenge for Muslims, as Kim said. Although it is. But I think it's also a challenge for other faiths. Because right now they're being confronted with this really savage view of Islam. People have to decide, is this what Islam is? Is this what I think Islam is? I was just in Indonesia earlier this year, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, and the Muslims there look at ISIS and they say we don't understand this. We don't recognize this as Islam. So it's not just for Muslims to confront this challenge themselves but for other faiths to really look at this and challenge whether or not this is what they think Islam really is.

DIONNE: I think a couple of things that have come out of this. One is the plight of Christians in the Middle East has been dire for a long time. But I think the ISIS threat, because it was so awful, has really lifted up that issue. And I think that we are going to be facing this more clearly than perhaps we have been in the past. But it poses a very complicated foreign policy problem to the United States. I mean, the United States has been against Assad's regime in Syria, rightly so. ISIS is the enemy of Assad. And we find ourselves in this very odd situation where we're not allied with Assad but we're allied against his enemy. And I think you will see something of an escalation of the American effort to push back ISIS. I don't think we're going to send a lot of troops there; President Obama does not want to do that. But this is going to be a real challenge for him, for our armed forces for the next year.

ABERNETHY: Let me turn your collective attention to all reporters' favorite Catholic, Pope Francis.

DIONNE: Not just reporters either.

ABERNETHY: How's he doing?

DIONNE: As you probably know I am very fond of Pope Francis. I think he has shaken up not only the Catholic Church but I think the world's perception of religion. One of the things that strikes me is how he has reached more secular people. I think more secular people are paying attention to him partly because of his very open attitude, the idea that he doesn't sort of dismiss theological differences. He is a Christian and a Catholic. But he has also put heavy emphasis on how people of goodwill across religious lines ought to cooperate on making the world better. And he's opened up a really new kind of debate in the Catholic Church that you really haven't seen since the Second Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII. The synod on the family was the closest thing to really open debate among bishops that you've seen in a long time. That makes some bishops uncomfortable. I think one of them said this looks a little Protestant to him. But maybe it does look a little Protestant, but it actually looks a lot like the Second Vatican Council. These are issues that have been there for a long time. He seems to think surfacing the debate is better, and I agree with him, surfacing the debate is better for the Church than pretending it doesn't exist.

LAWTON: But there were—well, it was interesting for a lot of people to see that debate and to see top Church leaders openly disagreeing on, for example, one of the big hot-button issues was whether Catholics who are divorced and then remarried may take communion in the Church, and currently they may not. And this is one area that indeed may change, which would be very interesting. That's for the future. But the fact that it was debated so openly was very interesting for a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I think it troubled some Catholic conservatives who are wondering, exactly where is this Church going? You saw more of that concern even though Pope Francis remains so popular. But among some conservative Catholics, they're not sure they like what he's doing.

DIONNE: It's interesting on that front that you can emphasize a God of judgment and you can emphasize a God of mercy, and I think a God of mercy is so central to Pope Francis's faith that it affects almost everything. It doesn't mean he makes any change at all in the formal doctrine of the Church, but the emphasis on a God of mercy has an effect across the board.

ABERNETHY: Good point. Kevin, there's a huge change going on, isn't there, about gay marriage in this country.

ECKSTROM: Yes, we saw hints of it at the Vatican when they were discussing issues of the family and what place gay Catholics will have or not have in the Church. But here at home the number of states that allow gay marriage doubled in 2014, from 17 to 35. It was all by court orders, and I think it's fair to say that soon enough it probably will be legal in all 50 states. The Supreme Court's probably going to need to decide that, but the momentum of change is just staggering.

ABERNETHY: The speed of it.

ECKSTROM: And what's really interesting are the conversations that churches are having around this issue, because now what you have is couples who are civilly married but they may not be married in their church. And they come to church or to synagogue or even to mosque. How are they received? What happens to them? And you've got churches trying to walk this fine line between the civil marriage, the license, and then the religious marriage. And so some churches in the United Methodist Church, for example, we saw all sorts of pastors who were brought up on charges of doing civil marriages for gay people that they are not allowed to do in the church yet. There's a lot of change going on there, but I think the speed of the change is really, really remarkable.

DIONNE: And the change in public opinion is breathtaking in a very short time. We had an election this year. Ten years ago, 2004, gay marriage was a central issue. It was—I'm sure it was discussed in some places but it was hardly central to this election. And I think that reflects the fact that an awful lot of people have changed their view on this issue, including very conservative people who may have particular views on what's sinful and what's not. But the fact that so many people have gay friends, gay neighbors, gay relatives, has really come to the surface in this debate. I think it's a very different country on this issue than it was just a decade ago.

LAWTON: But that is putting new pressure on some of the groups, specifically I'm thinking of evangelicals and conservative Catholics that do think homosexuality is a sin, do not want to accept gay marriage, don't want to see society accepting gay marriage. As society does accept that, where does that leave them, what do they do? Is there room for them to hang on to their beliefs? And so it's opened up some interesting legal questions, but also I think some interesting moral discussion. We are seeing more evangelicals raising questions. Should we accept gay marriage in some way? Can we do that if we think homosexuality is a sin? But you did see movement this year on this issue. You saw change perhaps in tone among, for example, Southern Baptists. And many of them, some very prominent leaders this year sort of stepped away from the change away the gay, the pray away the gay therapies to get gay people not to be gay. Many of them have stepped away from that, and that's really interesting. But what happens then to the people who are gay and lesbian, if they're in those kind of churches?

DIONNE: I think you're pointing to something that may be developing in this debate, which is over time there may be less and less opposition to gay marriage as performed by the state. And it will come back to a religious liberty question, where churches who reject homosexuality think it's a sin say, okay, we can live with this as a civil matter, but we want to preserve our rights not to marry, not to use our facilities. I think you may see a shift in debate in that direction.

ABERNETHY: And there was some interesting church-state stuff, too. Hobby Lobby, my favorite case.

LAWTON: Just because you like saying it! That’s right, you just like saying that. Well, again, this has been an issue that's raised interesting some church-state questions. Ever since the Obama administration's health care act had provisions for contraceptive services, there are some faith-based groups, again mainly Catholics and some evangelicals, who think some of those services are tantamount to abortion. In the case of Catholics they're against all of those services. But to what extent must they provide them for their employees or provide a way for their employees to have access to them? The Supreme Court this year said some businesses who are run by deeply religious people, closely held businesses, can have religious rights. There are religious rights in those businesses to make those decisions. What's interesting is there are some faith-based groups, an order of nuns, some religious universities that are still fighting in the courts to see where they're going to land.

ECKSTROM: Right, and I think what we saw, not only at the Supreme Court but across the federal court system, was a string of rulings that really sided on the church side of the church-state debate. There are a lot of challenges, from atheist groups challenging "In God we trust" on currency—they lost. They were challenging a tax break for clergy housing—they lost. They were challenging the cross a—the memorial cross at 9/11 Ground Zero memorial. They lost that one, too. So from the top down—in Greece v. Galloway, which upheld prayer at public meetings. The courts this year have generally sided on the side of religion as opposed to the side of the state, which I think is interesting.

DIONNE: And a lot of church-state lawyers have been suggesting that this was the trend in the Court, precisely, as you say, the trend was really visible this year in a lot of those cases. I think the question of Hobby Lobby is, how far can this right be extended to individual businesses? There was substantial support for giving religious exemptions of one sort or another to directly religious organizations. I think the question is where can a line be drawn on employee benefits that are declared a matter of religious conscience? I don't think that litigation is over yet.

LAWTON: That also has impact on the gay rights issue and gay marriage and benefits for gay spouses for some of these employees.

ABERNETHY: I want to ask you—our time is almost up, but I want to ask you if there were stories that you now see that went underreported, too little attention paid to them in this past year.

ECKSTROM: I would start with maybe not enough attention paid, but it was so—you have to connect the dots to sort of see what's really going on. The Mormon Church had a series of really interesting disclosures this year where they issued online statements about polygamy—yes, Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives. They talked about whether or not Mormons get a planet in the afterlife, and they said no. They talked about the so-called Mormon underwear, the temple garments that they say aren't magical at all. But really what you saw was a real-time evolution of church teaching, which you don't see very often. And you put all that together and you see a really sophisticated and deliberate plan by the Mormon Church to kind of shape how the public perceives them. I thought it was just fascinating. You kind of have to look beneath the surface a little bit to see it.

DIONNE: The one that I wanted to mention is now getting the attention it deserves thanks to TIME magazine. During the whole Ebola crisis, we were—there was some deep paranoia in that discussion. And I don't think we paid enough attention to all of the extraordinary people, some of them religious, many of them religious, many of them not, who were risking their lives to try to contain this disease in Africa. And I just think it was great that TIME magazine chose those folks as their Person of the Year. You know, do-gooder is often used as a negative term. It shouldn't be used as a negative term. These people were authentic do-gooders.

LAWTON: Many of them were medical missionaries who are serving in far-flung places around the world. People don't realize that some of these groups aren't just there to convert souls but they're there to do humanitarian work.

DIONNE: Amen, if I can use that word.

ABERNETHY: Any other people or groups?

LAWTON: I was going to say one of the things that was interesting to me that I covered but didn't get a lot of attention was the advances that, especially in the Protestant world, that women religious leaders made this year. You often hear about a stained-glass ceiling. People talk about where there's only so far that women clergy can go. And this year we saw Amy Butler at the historic Riverside Church in New York become the first female senior pastor. We saw a couple of other women take over pulpits in these very historic mainline congregations. There are a lot of reasons. Maybe it's because the mainline has been shrinking and men don't want to go into those positions so that's opened the door for women. I don't know. But it's interesting to see women really taking on leadership positions.

ECKSTROM: And the Church of England finally okayed women bishops, which is another big milestone this year.

ABERNETHY: I ask this every year, or want to. How is religion faring? Is it holding its own? Is it declining? What's going on?

DIONNE: You know, I think that you are seeing the advance of secularism in the United States. And it's particularly true among the younger generation. There are now a whole series of studies that suggest that the millennials, or people under 30—30 percent or more of them do not claim any religious affiliation. That's a huge number compared to young people of a generation or two before. And yet that tendency in the United States may fly in the face of what's happening in large parts of the world. I think it is not an accident that Pope Francis comes from South America, where you have religious movements taking off, including Pentecostalism. So you may have a wider divide between the developed West and the rest of the world than you used to.

ABERNETHY: We're going to have to leave it there. Thanks to Kim Lawton of this program, Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service, and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution, the Washington Post, and Georgetown University.

I'm Bob Abernethy. From all of us here, our very best wishes to all of you for a happy and healthy New Year.

Look Back 2014

Host Bob Abernethy leads a conversation with managing editor Kim Lawton, Religion News Service editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom, and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in our annual review of the top religion and ethics stories of 2014.