Hot words in top 2012 religion stories

‘Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress was offering a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced.

His bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas suggesting the president was truly You Know Anti-who?

“I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all,” said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a “theological cult.”

“What I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.”

That’s some pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded “don’t know” when asked to name the president’s faith. The good news was that a mere 11 percent said Obama is a Muslim — down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010.

Could church-state affairs get any hotter? Amazingly the answer was “yes,” with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including “morning-after pills.” The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.”

America’s Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried “foul,” claiming that the Obama team was separating mere “freedom of worship” from the First Amendment’s sweeping “free exercise of religion.” In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year’s top religion-news story. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was selected as the year’s top religion newsmaker – with Obama not included on the ballot.

The story I ranked No. 2 didn’t make the Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years – or even months — ahead.

Here’s the rest of the RNA Top 10 list:

* The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that religiously unaffiliated people – the so-called “nones” — is America’s fastest-growing religious group, approaching 20 percent of the population.

* The online trailer of an anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims,” allegedly causes violence in several countries, including a fatal attack on U.S. consulate in Libya.

* GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters.

* Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes first senior U.S. Catholic official found guilty of hiding priestly child abuse, followed by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo.

* Vatican officials harshly criticize liberal U.S. nuns, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its history of criticism of church teachings on sexuality and the all-male priesthood.

* Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.

* Episcopal Church leaders adopt ritual for blessing same-sex couples.

* A gunman described as a neo-Nazi kills six Sikhs and wounds three others in a suburban Milwaukee temple.

* Southern Baptist Convention unanimously elects its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

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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.