2007: A Year of Quiet Change

By Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
Saturday, December 1, 2007

History books are full of dates that mark seminal events: 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and launched the Protestant Reformation; or 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion.

Those boldface dates are preceded by less prominent but nonetheless decisive times: 1516, when a Dominican named Johann Tetzel led the sale of indulgences that deeply angered Luther; and 1970, when a young Texas woman named Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) filed suit to obtain an abortion.

This year may be recorded as such a pivotal year for religion and politics -- relatively quiet, unremarkable at first glance, but nonetheless significant as a harbinger of things to come.

"There are a lot of discrete things, but if you put them all together, you get the sense that change is in the air," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The realignment of the religious right is perhaps the biggest religion story of 2007 and the one most likely to affect 2008. The religious right is far from dead but leaves the year significantly altered:

¿ The deaths of Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy and even Tammy Faye Bakker Messner signaled a passing of the guard to a new generation of less doctrinaire conservatives with a broader social agenda.

¿ The Christian Coalition decided to sit out the 2008 presidential race, and the new president of the National Association of Evangelicals said he'd rather conduct a wedding or funeral than meet with White House hopefuls.

¿ Pat Robertson pronounced Rudy Giuliani an "acceptable" choice despite his support of abortion rights and civil unions and his three marriages. "To me, the overriding issue . . . is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists," Robertson said.

In other indications that something is shifting, a Mormon presidential candidate won the endorsement of the head of ultra-conservative Bob Jones University; an anti-abortion former Southern Baptist pastor-turned-governor from the Bible Belt struggled to gain traction; and megachurch pastor Rick Warren invited Hillary Rodham Clinton to talk about AIDS.

Even some of the biggest names in religious broadcasting ended 2007 under a cloud of scrutiny after Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) requested financial records in a probe of lavish spending by six television ministries.

"The religious right is not dead," said Laura Olson, a political scientist at Clemson University in South Carolina, "but it certainly has begun to look different lately."

On the world stage, 2007 was equally quiet, at least compared with recent years. Within Islam, relations with the West continued at a slow simmer, minus the violent reaction seen in 2006 to the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

But again, in a subtle sign that significant changes may be in the offing, 138 international Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict XVI in October to suggest that the common principles of "love of the One God, and love of the neighbor" could build a bridge of peace between Muslims and Christians.

Beijing and the Vatican took small steps to end a diplomatic dispute over who can appoint bishops for China's state-run Catholic Church, with one eye on a possible first-ever papal trip to China.

Benedict approved wider availability of the old Latin Mass. The Vatican also reaffirmed the primacy of the Catholic Church, saying Protestant bodies are not churches "in the proper sense." Most Protestants dismissed it as nothing new.

Episcopal bishops continued their battle with conservatives over policies on human sexuality. Under pressure from overseas Anglican leaders, U.S. bishops reaffirmed their pledge not to elect any more gay bishops and said they won't authorize rites for same-sex blessings, though some acknowledged such blessings occur in their dioceses.

This year may also be remembered for the rebirth of a reinvigorated atheist movement. Books that questioned religious belief topped bestseller lists -- even among religious titles -- throughout 2007, including Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great" and Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion."

In a decision that could shape the abortion debate for years to come, the Supreme Court upheld a 2003 ban on so-called partial-birth abortion. Abortion foes called it a necessary check on a gruesome procedure; abortion rights advocates worried it moves the court one step closer to overturning Roe v. Wade.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company