BOB ABERNETHY, host: Welcome. I'm Bob Abernethy. It's good to have you with us for our annual look ahead at what the top religion and ethics stories of the New Year might be. E.J. Dionne is here. He's a senior fellow with 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 the managing editor of this program. Welcome to you all.

Let's begin with that terrible, terrible situation in the Middle East with ISIS and whether it can be brought under control or defeated. Who wants to predict anything there?

KIM LAWTON: Well it's one of the big questions the international community is going to have to continue struggling with in this year is how to stop ISIS. And for the US, unfortunately, that means I think some very difficult political debates about increasing the military operations there. And it's interesting that in the past we've had some more debates about moral implications of US actions, and I don't think we have as much this time around. But certainly there isn't a lot of support for more boots on the ground in that part of the world. And so I think the question is, do we have a responsibility to protect those people? Muslims, Christians, religious minorities who are just being decimated. Do we have a responsibility to do something? If so, what does that mean?

ABERNETHY: And can we, even if we have a responsibility, can we be effective?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, the question is whether we can push back ISIS or whether we're starting out trying to contain them and prevent them from taking more territory. I mean, at least in the initial phase, they were on a real roll taking over large amounts of territory, both in Iraq and in Syria. We seem to have stopped that advance. The question is whether we can push them back. The striking thing is ISIS has no friends in the Middle East. I believe it was The Economist had this great chart where they said, who's friends and who's enemies with whom? Every regime, regimes we like, regimes we don't like, really does not want ISIS to take off in the Middle East. And so I think one of the issues will be, what will our—not only our allies, but what will our adversaries do? It's odd we are on the same side as the Iranians, for example, in this fight. And we are each doing pieces of the military effort.

ABERNETHY: And can other Muslims in the Middle East prevail over this strange—

KEVIN ECKSTROM: That's part of the problem with this whole ISIS story. This is as much an interreligious or intra=religious fight as it is a political one. These are Muslims who have no problem killing other Muslims because they're deemed as heretics or not pure enough or whatever. And so in many ways, yes, this is a challenge for the international community to figure out what to do here and how to contain them. But it's also a struggle for Islam. For Islam to find a way to say, you know, in whatever capacity it can, that this is not allowable Islamic behavior. What ISIS is doing is not sanctioned by this faith. The problem is that Islam doesn't have a pope, it doesn't have a council of imams or something that can issue a declarative ruling like that. So I don't know what the answer is, but Islam itself needs to come to terms with what ISIS is and what it claims to be.

LAWTON: The other problem that we're going to be facing this year is what to do with all the victims, the refugees, who have been pouring out of the places both in Syria and in Iraq where ISIS and the ongoing civil war in Syria are just killing their communities. And unfortunately the humanitarian groups are already operating at really top capacity. We saw in 2014 some funding programs are running out of money. People are getting tired of donating to these causes, but yet the needs are still there. All signs are they're only going to increase. That's going to be a big problem for the world to face.

ABERNETHY: Let me turn your attention a little bit to the situation between Israel and its neighbors. There are going to be some tough decisions coming up there about what kind of state, for instance, the Israelis want to be. Is it a homeland for all Jews? Is it a democracy?

DIONNE: The people of Israel are going to have a big say in that because they have an election coming up. You talk about consequential choices. This is going to be a very consequential election for Israelis. There are parties in the election that want to pursue a peace process with the Palestinians actively. There is the argument that you suggest, should it be declared a Jewish state in a way that other populations in Israel, particularly Arabs and Muslims, will regard as exclusionary? This is a very divisive debate among Jews of Israel, many of whom are insistent that Israel's strength is as a democracy. So I think one of the most watched elections in the world will be the one that we're about to see soon in Israel.

LAWTON: And it has implications for religious groups here in the U.S. as well. Certainly in the Jewish community. We see strong support for Israel, of course, but there's growing debate over how supportive to be if Israel lurches very far to the right. And among American Jews this is sort of a tricky, controversial question. Also in the Christian communities, some groups very, very pro-Israel, not concerned if Israel becomes more to the right. But other groups, other Christian groups concerned about the Palestinian situation, with the Palestinians seeking statehood before the UN It's a brew for a lot of religiously-tinged tension.

ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, there's been a lot of violation of holy sites.

LAWTON: Well, the holy sites are always sort of ground zero for them in terms of tension points and everybody arguing over the holy sites, especially the Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary for Muslims, and that site is going to continue to be a point of great tension.

ABERNETHY: E.J., Pope Francis is coming to the United States in September, going to Philadelphia for a conference there. Are we going to be seeing any changes in the teachings of the Catholic Church in this year to come?

DIONNE: I'm not sure we're going to see changes in teaching, but we're already seeing, and I think we'll see more of, a change in emphasis. One of the most important, if you will, political moves in the Church last year was the appointment of Blais Supich as archbishop of Chicago. And Supich is very much a social justice Catholic in the tradition of an earlier archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Bernadin. I think that gave a signal to the American Church where Pope Francis would like the Church to move. And it's not a question of the church abandoning its opposition to abortion, it's actually going back to where, in some ways, where the church was 20 or 30 years ago, where Cardinal Bernadin used to talk about a "seamless garment" that involved a commitment to life across the board, including a commitment to the poor, opposition to the death penalty, and a commitment to peace. And that seems to be the direction he's pushing. It's going to be very interesting, because there are divisions among American Catholics. There are some of the more conservative bishops who have openly expressed some unease with the direction that Pope Francis is taking. I doubt those will come to the surface when he's here. I expect everybody is going to welcome him. But it's sure going to be interesting to see how that unease on the right of the Church is expressed.

ECKSTROM: The thing to remember is last October, 2014, we had this big raucous debate at the Vatican over issues of the family and cohabitation and homosexuality. That was actually only round one. Round two is coming up in October of 2015. And that's where the actual decisions may be made. Now, as E.J. said, there's not going to be a change in teaching, necessarily. But how the Church approaches gay and lesbian couples, for example. That may—there may be some there that come out of that meeting. So that will be, I think, a key thing to watch is how the Church navigates this tricky line between holding to its teaching, because most Catholics say the Church can't change its teaching. How do you adapt that for a modern time where the society is moving at a much quicker pace than where the Church is?

LAWTON: In one—

DIONNE: There's an old joke among Catholic theologians that whenever the Church alters its teaching a little bit the statement always begins as "the Church has always taught."

LAWTON: Well, and that's just it. People can find that when they look back. One area I am going to watch where there may be some change is this question of whether Catholics were divorced and remarried will be eligible to take communion, which they currently cannot. There's a lot of support from top church leaders, very public support, for making some changes in this area. And so that's one thing I'm going to be watching. If that does change that will be really huge. And it's a possibility.

DIONNE: And the language used about gays and lesbians. In other words, the Church is not going to endorse gay marriage, but the language in one of the early documents at the synod, the first round, was very open. It was dialed back a little bit. But language like that, even if it doesn't change doctrine, sends a very powerful signal. And it's going to be interesting to see exactly what signal the Church wants to send.

ABERNETHY: And this year, 2015, is going to be the pre-election year and the new Congress. What do you see, E.J.?

DIONNE: We always seem to be in the pre-election year.

LAWTON: Every year is a pre-election year.

DIONNE: For political junkies like me, that's just fine. You know, I think, first of all, the fight on the Republican side is going to be fascinating. Because—and it will complicate what happens in Congress—because you have a number of presidential candidates in the Congress, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, among others. And then you will have sort of, I think, a real fight over the future of the party. One of the interesting things is, for the last year or so, the religious conservatives who are always a very important part of the Republican primaries and part of the Republican base, their issues have not been front and center nearly as much as the economic issues have been. And I think it's going to be very interesting to see, how do the religious conservatives push their agenda to the front again? Does Mike Huckabee make another run for the presidency, and what comes out of that?

LAWTON: Well, and it will be interesting to see if their issues, the religious conservatives' issues, remain gay marriage and abortion, because last year we saw a broadening of some of the agenda, even among conservatives. You saw religious conservative evangelicals supporting immigration reform and getting behind that issue, getting involved in that issue in a way that perhaps they hadn't in the past. You saw them coming out and talking about race issues in a way that perhaps they haven't in the past. Now, I don't know if that's going to translate into a different political agenda, but that's something I'm going to be watching. Now, the Republicans, though, are going to have to figure out how they keep those voters engaged. I mean, they have to get those guys mobilized and get to the polls. And they do vote, and that makes a difference. But how are they going to try to mobilize those folks?

DIONNE: If I can just say, you're quite right to raise immigration because that is going to be a huge issue this year. Both because of President Obama's executive order, but again, does Congress decide to do something? It's really striking how broad the coalition is among churches in favor of some kind of immigration reform.

ABERNETHY: Do you see that, Kevin?

ECKSTROM: Yeah. I think one of the guys to watch is Jeb Bush who at the end of 2014 at least seemed to be taking active steps towards exploring this run for the presidency. He's been fairly pro-immigration reform. There's not a whole lot of difference between him and the Obama White House in terms of needing to do something to fix this system. And he's bucking up against a large part of his party there. But the Republicans, I think, need to be very careful about immigration, not only to avoid angering Hispanics as being seen as anti-immigrant, but also the Catholic bishops, a lot of evangelical leaders, a lot of Jewish leaders are very much pro-immigration reform. Republicans have a delicate dance to do in terms of not angering their own base, also not angering the folks who are really in favor of this.

DIONNE: On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, does she get an opponent? I think you're going to see a big and XXX debate on the Democratic side about economics and where the party wants to be. Elizabeth Warren is representative and a spokesperson for a kind of rising populist wing in the party, and I think that will be a very interesting discussion matched up against the Republicans.

LAWTON: And she did a pretty active faith-based outreach during the last campaign season and really aggressively went after some of those faith-based voters. So that may bring more religious dimensions into this upcoming election. And the other group I just really quickly wanted to mention are the rising number of people who say they're religiously unaffiliated. They are extremely liberal, they vote extremely Democratic, but they don't get out to vote in big numbers. Especially a lot of young people. So are the Democrats going to be trying to reach out to them, and does that push them a little more on a more liberal, secular note?

DIONNE: They tend to vote more in a presidential year, but I think Democrats have the most complicated religious coalition. They include in a sense the least religious people, who are these more secular folks. They also include African Americans, who by all measures are among the most religious people in our country. So they always have a complicated problem or perhaps opportunity on that front.

ABERNETHY: Are there things coming up in all this that are of particular importance to religious folks in the churches?

DIONNE: I think immigration is going to be an important issue. And I think precisely because a lot of conservative religious leaders are also very close to the Latino community. After all, there are a lot of religiously conservative Latinos. I think they could have more influence on the debate because they kind of transcend some of our usual political divisions. And I think this inequality debate is going to continue in our country. And you know, the churches have always been important to debates about social justice in our country, and I think they are going to play a big role in that debate as well.

LAWTON: You're talking about race there, you're talking about all of the mobilization we saw around issues surrounding, yeah, inequity and racial injustice. To what extent will that become a pre-election issue will be interesting to watch.

ABERNETHY: What's coming up in the way of important Supreme Court decisions?

ECKSTROM: So the one that I'm going to be watching—there's two, actually. One is the case that was argued in late 2014 about Muslims, prisoners, and the rights to grow beards. It's not just about Muslim prisoners, it's about whether or not the state can come in and impose religious restrictions on inmates, and that's going to be decided in 2015. The other case that I'm really looking forward to, actually, is the Supreme Court decision about whether or not Abercrombie and Fitch, the retailer, could tell a Muslim employee not to wear hijab on the job. So this young woman applied to work at Abercrombie and Fitch, she showed up in hijab, she was not given the job. So the Supreme Court will hear her case in the spring and probably rule by June. So it will be worth watching.

DIONNE: This issue of religious rights at work is so fascinating because it criss-crosses a lot of the usual divides where you have quite religious—quite conservative, quite religious people on the one side, but a lot of civil libertarians and friends of labor on that same side.

LAWTON: They're all coming together.

DIONNE: Defending rights of employees. I agree that is a fascinating case.

LAWTON: The other thing that may end up at the Supreme Court is gay marriage, which is obviously a very hot-button issue. And it's very likely the court will pick up—they'll at least have an opportunity to take up a case because the lower courts have been moving the cases forward. And so this could be a very pivotal year on that issue. That, of course, has a lot of religious implications. Certainly many faith groups have been supporting gay marriage as a matter of justice and equality, but others oppose it, especially those who consider homosexuality a sin. And so where they will end up in all of this, how they will hang on to those beliefs, especially when you may have clashing rights. Civil rights of gays, lesbians, transgendered people, and religious rights. And people who want to hold on to those religious rights. But if that means discriminating against somebody else, how do you work that out in a pluralistic society?

ECKSTROM: The other case to watch, a series of cases dealing with the contraception mandate. In 2014, the Supreme Court decided that Hobby Lobby had the right to not give contraception to all of its employees if it didn't want to. But the court didn't really address—the Supreme Court didn't address the larger question of religious groups. So there's groups of nuns and religious colleges and universities and some activist groups who are all involved. They're still bound by the mandate, the contraception mandate. And their cases haven't reached the Supreme Court, but it's very likely that the Supreme Court will have to do something about that this year.

DIONNE: And the hardest cases are the cases where rights are in conflict. And so many of these raise those questions. The rights that religious groups have and the rights that individuals have. And I think we're going to see clashes between these this year and for some time to come.

LAWTON: Absolutely.

ABERNETHY: There's a big UN meeting coming up in Paris, I think, in this year, about climate change. Have any of you been following that? Do you know what the likely outcome of that is?

LAWTON: Well, I think on the faith end you've seen more and more faith groups involved in environmental issues. It's been a growing movement of people who call it creation care. And they've been pushing for more international restrictions to protect the environment, especially to stop climate change. So they're going to be active, you know, lobbying for more restrictions. Because they see this as a moral issue.

DIONNE: And I think, to go back to the pope and the Vatican, I think the pope has been moving toward a more and more green position. And that was actually true of Pope Benedict before him. And I remember Catholic friends saying he heard a report saying, gee, they're so green they're wearing green vestments. In fact, green was the color of the vestments at that service. But it had nothing to do with the environment, yet I think it was sort of symbolic of a shift that's happening in the Catholic Church. Although maybe it's not a shift at all. After all St. Francis of Assisi was the original friend of the environment.

ECKSTROM: Well, and this pope, who took his name after Francis, is expected to issue his first encyclical on the environment, probably in 2015, so definitely worth watching.

ABERNETHY: As you look ahead, what stories do you particularly want to watch? It might be off the beaten track just a little bit.

ECKSTROM: Well, one election—since we're talking about the election—that I'm going to be looking at is the Episcopal Church will be electing its new presiding bishop. They made history by electing the first woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and now she is not going to run again and so she'll be up for election in 2015. There's a lot of speculation that after the first woman they might try to have the first minority or ethnic presiding bishop. So it's more of a symbolic gesture, I think, than anything of real substance in terms of the race or gender of the presiding bishop, but it does say something about the church of the establishment and who they put in the top position. So worth watching.

DIONNE: I'm sort of—it feels like we may be seeing a new civil rights movement—and we sort of forget how central the churches were in the original civil rights movement—because of what happened on Staten Island and in Ferguson. Because of the efforts to change the sentencing laws so that African-American men in particular don't get sent to prison for endless periods of time. I think there's a real bubbling up. Obviously, it's happening within African-American churches, but you're really seeing some of this happen in white and Latino churches. And I think this may be a year where we see something—I don't think it will be a surprise, but certainly a surprise that it's going to make a comeback again.

ABERNETHY: What about people, Kim, you're watching in the coming year?

LAWTON: I'm going to be watching some of the people in the evangelical movement, especially younger evangelicals who are talking about issues surrounding homosexuality. And you're seeing some interesting new conversations among evangelicals who are among the most opposed to gay marriage, who are among the most—strongest saying homosexuality is a sin. But you're seeing growing debate within that community, and you're seeing some high-profile people changing their position. And so I'm going to be watching some of those, especially the younger ones.


ABERNETHY: I have asked this before. I'm interested in any predictions or sense you might have about how the churches, how the whole idea of worship and belief is doing. Are there things coming up in this year that might have an effect on all that?

ECKSTROM: Well, I think, you know, religion and faith is doing just fine. In some—people are still going to church on Sundays, they still go to the synagogue on Friday nights. Religion remains important to people's lives. I don't think there's much question there. I think the question and the challenge for religious establishments is a question of authority. So there was a really interesting survey that came out in the middle of 2014 that talked about the Bible and people's views about what the Bible is. And a larger than ever before number of people described it as a book of fables and stories. It was not the authoritative word of God anymore. So there are, I think, challenges to the authority of institutional religion. And I think you see that in the Catholic Church by people saying, well, I'll take this but I'm not going to—I disagree on that issue. So religious institutions, I think, are in a more competitive marketplace to get people's attention and claims on their identity. But I think, you know, rank and file—it's doing okay on a Sunday morning.

LAWTON: And especially in an era when people, especially younger people, don't want to affiliate. It's that—they may have religious impulses, they may have spiritual impulses, maybe very specific about God, Jesus, Allah, or maybe more general. They don't like to affiliate with an official institution, but how are they working out that spirituality in this new era?

ABERNETHY: Our time is up, I'm sorry to say. Thanks to E.J. Dionne, Kevin Eckstrom, and Kim Lawton. I'm Bob Abernethy. From all of us, every good wish for a wonderful new year.

Look Ahead 2015

What’s likely to make headlines in the new year? From ISIS to Pope Francis’s visit to the US to the situation in the Holy Land, it’s our annual survey of the top religion and ethics stories we expect to be covering in 2015.