Five "Sleeper" Stories from 2013

Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on 2013 in Review. Read other perspectives here.

1)   A Mounting Religious Critique of Economism

This year saw considerable under-the-radar discussion of religion and the Occupy movement. Much of this was prompted by books published in 2012. There was Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-Lan. There was also Susan Thistlethwaite's Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (And Did) About Money and Power. Some might consider books of this kind to be "lagging indicators," inasmuch as the Occupy movement had subsided dramatically by the time of their publication. I would rather think of them as leading indicators, inasmuch as there is now growing and sustainable religious involvement in the Moral Mondays movement and in direct support for the David vs. Goliath struggle of fast food workers to earn a decent wage. As it becomes ever more obvious that the desperate struggles of people at the economic bottom are not unrelated to the accelerating accumulation of wealth at the top, we should not be surprised to see that at least some religious leaders seem ready to name and attack systems of oppression and not merely salve the wounds of the oppressed.

2)   First Rumblings of Tectonic Shift in Church-State Law?

Another leading indicator that surfaced in 2013 (albeit also as a sleeper story): the first stirrings of what I fear will become a much greater—and misconceived—accommodation of "religious liberty" on the part of the courts. There is every indication that the Supreme Court is looking for an opening to upend settled law in this area. And there is no shortage of aggrieved litigants—led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—who are eager to argue that government overreach threatens religion's "right to exist." Reporter Sarah Posner provides an excellent overview of this panic-driven landscape. One almost-funny example of where things are going: the appearance of a new official statement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that decisively renounces and condemns polygamy at the very same time that a federal district judge has challenged Utah's anti-polygamy statute as a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.

3)   Latino Catholics Shrug Off Culture Warfare

According to a 2013 report from the Public Religion Research Institute, a much higher proportion of Latino Roman Catholics take a relaxed view of same-sex marriage and think such marriages should be legal (62 percent) than do mainline Protestants (47 percent), the cohort of American Christians that is often thought to be the most "liberal" on social issues. And although far fewer Latino Catholics take the same relaxed view of abortion, the percentage of same who agree that "abortion should be legal in most or all cases" is notably greater than the percentage of mainline Protestants who agree with that statement (47 percent vs. 41 percent). Finally, a remarkably high proportion of Latino Catholics (65 percent) think that they can disagree with Church teaching on contraception "and still be a good Christian."

4)   The Missing Religious Debate on Affordable Healthcare

In true pack fashion, the mainstream media continued to bombard us this year with story after story about private business owners (e.g., Hobby Lobby), Catholic schools and hospitals, and others claiming a "conscience" exemption from complying with the ACA's requirement that all employer insurance plans include reproductive health coverage. What no one seemed to be interested in discussing is the core ethical dimension of the ACA itself: i.e., the acceptance of a community responsibility for covering our uninsured at-risk and suffering neighbors. Continuing to fear the "socialist" label even though he will never again face re-election, President Obama declined to defend the ACA in these terms. But that's no excuse for the near-total silence of mainstream Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders who could and should be saying clearly that ACA does have a redistributive dimension—and that that is a good thing!

5)   Deep Loneliness in a Networked Culture

Here again it is the absence of a religious discourse that, to me, constitutes the sleeper story. MIT's Sherry Turkle, among others, has written powerfully about how immersion in social media crimps actual social development, starves many young people for real conversation, and contributes to an atomistic inwardness that has real implications for both private and public life in a variety of ways. Traditional religious communities, with their emphasis on communal activities (worship, study, service), obviously have a huge stake in how this turns out—in whether critics like Turkle are right or wrong—yet religious leaders are mostly absent from the discussion. Many, in fact, seem mainly concerned about how they can be better "liked" on social media. As the Roman satirist Juvenal famously asked, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

12/20/2013 5:00:00 AM
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