2006 In Review
The Status Quo Is Rejected
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Elections, the late columnist Franklin P. Adams once said, "are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody."
And whatever Americans were voting for in 2006, it seems clear that what they were voting against was the status quo. Episcopalians, for one, decided to give a woman a shot and elected their first female leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. U.S. Muslims turned to Ingrid Mattson as the first woman to lead the Islamic Society of North America. Southern Baptists, dissatisfied with the old guard, chose a relative unknown, Frank Page, to lead the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
In church basements, school gymnasiums and fire stations across the country, Americans in November registered their frustration at the voting booth and gave control of Capitol Hill to the Democrats, making 2006 a year when votes -- sacred and secular -- became the year's biggest religion news story.
After years of vowing to "get religion," Democrats saw modest gains among religiously minded voters after a concerted effort to cast their policies through a moral lens. The party gained ground among Catholics, weekly worship attenders and those who rarely or never attend worship services.
John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who crunched the numbers, said white evangelicals remained the bedrock of the Republican base, but Democrats wooed enough secular or less-religious voters to put them in the majority.
"What that suggests is that the religion gap, or 'God gap,' works both ways," Green said. People who attend worship most regularly "can help Republicans, but [the gap] can also help Democrats by getting a higher vote among the less religious."
On the other side of the world, an obscure Afghan man named Abdul Rahman faced a possible death sentence after he elected to change his religion -- from Islam to Christianity -- in a case that reflected growing tensions between Islam and the West, the other big story of 2006.
Tensions flared in February when Muslims around the world protested -- sometimes violently -- a Danish newspaper's refusal to apologize for printing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims found deeply offensive. Muslims said the cartoons (and all depictions of Muhammad) were sacrilegious and irresponsible, while Westerners asserted rights of free speech, free press and artistic freedom.
The controversy eventually subsided but was reignited by Pope Benedict XVI in September, with a speech in Germany in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who called Muhammad's teachings "evil and inhuman" and "spread by the sword."
Riots and violence flared again, fueled by lingering tensions over European attempts to place limits on Islamic headscarves and veils in public. Benedict said that he was sorry if people were offended, but he did not retract the substance of the remarks. The pope tried to soothe concerns in late November with a trip to Turkey and an appeal for both sides to "utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion."
Conflict of a different sort raged within American churches -- the ongoing fight over homosexuality. The Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a plan to keep its rules against actively gay clergy intact while also allowing local bodies to bypass them in limited cases. A group of American Baptist churches in Southern California, upset by a perceived leftward drift, voted to leave their denomination.
Episcopalians, meanwhile, agreed to "exercise restraint" before electing another openly gay bishop as conservatives laid the groundwork to leave the deeply divided church. By year's end, one diocese (San Joaquin, Calif.) had voted to sever ties with the national church, and several large congregations in Texas and Virginia voted to leave. Neither Jefferts Schori nor Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was able to devise a solution that would keep conservatives in the fold.