2010 was that kind of year in religion

As is our practice this time of year — everyone say “Duh” — your GetReligionistas like to roll out some of the “year’s top religion stories” lists and allow readers to join us in making comments.

Yes, I will eventually explain why there is a picture of the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic Cathedral in Bagdad at the top of this post.

The poll that is seen by the most serious readers is the one that has long been produced by the Religion Newswriters Association, the professional association for mainstream journalists on this beat. Here is the top of the press release on this year’s results.

Public debate and controversy over a planned Islamic community center and mosque to be built near New York’s Ground Zero ignited a national debate about religious freedom that kept the story in the news for months.

The story was voted the No. 1 religion story of 2010 in the annual Top 10 Religion News Stories of the Year poll of Religion Newswriters Association members. The center’s leading proponent, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was voted the 2010 Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

Public opinion and outcry over the mosque reached a peak when a pastor of a small Florida church threatened to burn a Qu’ran in protest, a bravado that fueled fears of international backlash against the United States until the pastor backed down.

Most of the time I agree with the top few choices in the poll and this year was no exception. However, elected to start my Scripps Howard News Service column on the 2010 results in an odd way, which left me backing into the main subject.

You see, for the past two years the top story has been linked to faith issues related to the rise and triumph of Barack Obama — click here, and here to see that. In an odd sort of way, I thought the story of the (near) Ground Zero mosque actually reflected some of the same strange tensions that were linked to Obama’s public statements about his own liberal Christian faith and his efforts to enthusiastically reach out to the Islamic world, in part because of his own unique spiritual journey.

Thus, here is how I opened my column this year:

President Barack Obama did something on Sept. 19th that caught many in the national press off guard. He went to church.

The First Family walked across Lafayette Square Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, a parish so close to the White House that many call it the “Church of the Presidents.” The Obamas set down front and received Holy Communion.

Was this really an important news story?

Timing was everything. The Obama family had not occupied a public pew — as opposed to attending services at Camp David — since Easter. And this church visit came shortly after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans insist on believing that Obama is a Muslim, a stunning number that was up from 11 percent in March 2009.

Obama has, in numerous speeches and his two memoirs, offered detailed testimonies about his progressive faith and why he feels at home in the United Church of Christ, a freewheeling flock that has long helped define the left wing of Protestantism. Nevertheless, only 34 percent of Pew poll participants said the president is a Christian and a stunning 43 percent could not identify his current religion. Only 46 percent of Democrats, and 43 percent of African-Americans, said Obama is a Christian. …

It was that kind of year, with many of the most vital news stories and trends rooted in confusing clashes about religious liberty, law, history and tradition.

And that, of course, brings us back to the Ground Zero story and several others.

Now, please read the whole RNA poll list, especially the second half of the poll results. What struck me as interesting — and sad — was item No. 11, which stated:

Faith-based aid workers are slain in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Half of Iraq’s 750,000 Christians have left it since 2003.

Look at the second half of that item.

This, of course, brings us around to the story that I thought should have been near the very top of the RNA poll results — the massacre at the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic Cathedral, where at least 58 worshipers were slain and more than 100 were taken hostage. That was a rather symbolic story and was the perfect symbol of the forces, led by radical forms of Islam, that are driving Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant believers out of the ancient lands of the biblical world.

The RNA results, I think, are a reflection of a wider problem that should be familiar to GetReligion readers. If the press struggles to “get” religion and the American public is not that interested in global news, then what could be more problematic than trying to draw attention to religion news on the other side of the planet?

Now, there have been more than a few stories about the exodus of Eastern Christians from their ancient homelands. I know that. But it still seems that this story isn’t getting the coverage that it deserves.

Thus, the picture of the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic Cathedral.

It has been said before: Their blood cries out.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan

    The item that strikes me as odd is No. 2 — Baptists alleged to have smuggled children out of Haiti in the course of earthquake relief. This is the kind of event that will not make the history books and will be entirely forgotten in a few years. Yet it is No. 2?

  • Jerry

    Expanding on Dan’s idea: Singular events in the lives of Jesus, Muhammad or Krishna would not be in the “top 10″ of those years. And on a different scale, we have important events in the lives of such figures as St. Francis, Martin Luther, Rumi and Mirabai. It’s only in the lens of history do we see the true importance of what was once obscure.

    So while I don’t think 2010 was such as year, I do wonder a bit. And I’d be curious if anyone has reviewed the preceding several years’ top 10 to see how those lists look today.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I’m one of the people who pre-screens and votes on the poll — and you’re right. The massacre at the cathedral should have been on the ballot. It wasn’t and none of us caught the omission. There are a lot of problems with compiling the poll. Personally I’ve griped about a tendency to mix too many semi-related stories together in one item. I believe that the people who voted for Haiti were emphasizing the first sentence about massive faith-based aid and not the second sentence about the errant Baptists arrested for kidnapping. I voted for the slain aid workers to be very high up — I think I had them at three. But I think there’s a tendency by reporters to vote for items that receive the most press back home, not necessarily the ones that ultimately make or reflect the biggest impact in the world of religion. Alas, stories about slain missionaries and aid workers overseas are reduced to briefs in many newspapers.

  • Dave

    It would be journalistically interesting to ponder in print how ancient Christian communities dwelt in peace in Moslem majority lands as long as the local government seriously stifled the people, but when the West went in to “liberate” those places, lurking xenophobic passions reasserted themselves with these tragic consequences. Now the government of Iraq is giving us a year to get outta Dodge, and neither the government of Afghanistan nor of Pakistan fully supports our efforts to bring down the religious fanatics who committed 9/11. Not a happy state of affairs.

  • http://harmamae.wordpress.com/ Harma

    So Julia Roberts made the list, huh? Interesting…

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Ann’s right – the downside of the RNA list is that stories can get mashed together, such as the faith-based Haiti relief and the arrested Baptists, or slain aid workers and the suffering of Christians in Iraq.

    And there are too many religion stories out there to squeeze on a list this size.

  • kristy

    I think the list highlights our American tendency to being oblivious to anything that doesn’t affect us directly and immediately. It takes major advocacy to get any kind of story from overseas covered in more than a cursory manner. The Haitian story was covered more completely because there were Americans there when it happened, and it was fairly easy to get reporters AND THEIR EQUIPMENT to the field. (Another American problem is that we don’t think it’s important unless we can see pictures – preferably video- of a story.)

    The story in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is a slow-motion story, spiraling from persecution to flight to smaller minorities, to persecution … etc. It has been going on for too many years for it to have the quality of a breaking news story, yet I believe it will have greater impact in the long run than either Haiti or the ground zero mosque project. The Baghdad massacre was too much of a reminder that while we in America really want Islam to be the religion of peace it claims for itself, there are many factions that use violence and murder in the name of their religion – and THAT doesn’t fit into the overarching narrative the American press is currently promoting.

  • Ben

    Terry — I was a bit disturbed by your phrase “their blood cries out,” then I clicked the link and saw you are making an allusion to a book title. Still, while I agree with the need to report the persecution of Christians worldwide, starting to talk about their blood as some agent for action sounds like the kind of language that leads to more violence.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Kristy

    There’s no overarching narrative in the press –we’re way too disorganized for that.
    Two big things are happening at the same time. The world is getting flatter and more connected — while at the same time journalism – at least the kind at secular papers that pays the bills – is getting more narrowly focused.
    So stories like the cathedral massacre- since it didn’t happen in Nashville, didn’t get covered here.

  • kristy

    There’s no overarching narrative in the press —we’re way too disorganized for that.

    :)

    Perhaps you’re right, Bob – I don’t want to see a conspiracy in every trend. Yet, editorial content, NPR stories, evening news choices of how much time to spend on different kinds of stories, and general anecdotal evidence suggest to me that there is a reluctance to cover these stories of Islam that doesn’t hew to our Western ideals of what is noble and good. On the other hand, these are factions, and the mistaken idea that there is ‘One Islam’ could paint all Muslims with far too broad a brush.

  • Jeffrey

    that there is a reluctance to cover these stories of Islam that doesn’t hew to our Western ideals of what is noble and good.

    It’s interesting, because my experience if just the opposite. The press has a difficult time telling stories about Islam and Muslims that aren’t negative. That’s why Bob’s series about Muslims in Tennessee was so interesting because it showed a level of complexity the media rarely provides about Muslims, especially in America.

  • Dan

    A significant omission from the list is the Catholic Church’s issuance of “Anglicanorum Coetibus,” which provides a canonical structure to allow groups of Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church.