Religion Highlights of 2012
by Mark Tooley
Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, secularization is not the wave of the future.
Secular elites like to insist that America and by implication the world is growing ever more secular. The evidence is doubtful at best. In 2012 a much trumpeted Pew study showed a record number of Americans professing to be religiously unaffiliated, with 20 percent declared as “nones.” Although the same study showed about the same percentage of Americans attending church regularly as have for the last 80 years, it was widely heralded as proof of accelerating secularization.
A massive Gallup survey of over 300,000 Americans published in December 2012 rebuts the secularist claims of triumph. Gallup found 77 percent identifying with Christianity, with 5 percent identifying with non-Christian religion, and 18 percent unaffiliated. The Gallup report, called “God Is Alive and Well,” suggests that “religion may become increasingly important in the years to come” in America. It cites an aging American demographic prone to be more religious. It also suggests that as “religiousness is significantly related to wellbeing and health,” more Americans, especially “aging baby boomers,” may “look to religion as a positive component of their way of life.” Even “business and government leaders may take these correlates of religiousness into account in their quest to increase employee wellbeing and lower healthcare costs,” Gallup speculates. So take that secularist triumphalists!
Gallup also predicts an “extension of the current trends toward unbranded, nondenominational, more free-form religious expression,” with “significant implications for the future of traditional mainline religious groups that are slower to adapt to change.” No doubt. The implications for imploding old line churches is already quite clear. The rise of the religiously unaffiliated mostly reflects the collapse of old denominational forms of liberal Protestantism.
Secularist triumphalists have also celebrated the 2012 election result for supposedly proving the political irrelevance of Evangelicals and traditional Catholics. But white evangelicals were a record percentage of the electorate, the largest religious demographic, and higher than in 2004, which had provoked some secularists at the time to warn of impending theocracy.
Despite premature secularist claims, 2012 was a significant year for religion in America and the world, further proving that religion is effervescent and hardly receding. Here are a few of the top religion stories of the last year.
The Obamacare HHS insurance mandate requiring religious institutions such as hospitals and schools to cover contraceptives and abortifacients has generated an almost unprecedented joint sense of purpose between Roman Catholic and Evangelical leaders and institutions. Colleges from both traditions, including evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, are litigating against the mandate. And even many Evangelical leaders like megachurch pastor Rick Warren who typically avoid the culture war have strongly denounced the mandate as an assault on religious liberty.
Along with Obama’s support for same sex marriage and abortion rights, the HHS mandate likely suppressed the Evangelical Left during the 2012 presidential election campaign. Groups such as Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, along with many other liberal Evangelicals, largely were low profile during the 2012 elections, starkly contrasting to 2008 when prominent liberal Evangelicals excitedly supported Obama. Wallis himself was openly apathetic, and some prominent Evangelicals, like Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, publicly criticized the HHS mandate. The Obama campaign, after having courted Evangelicals in 2008, largely ignored them in 2012, realizing they could win without them.
Leaders of the otherwise increasingly liberal-leaning National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) have stood against the HHS mandate. But NAE had its own contraceptive controversy this year after quietly accepting pro-choice foundation grant money under the auspices of reducing unplanned pregnancy. A foundation official appeared on an NAE-sponsored panel during a prominent Evangelical event in Washington, D.C., prompting a World magazine exposé, and NAE’s renouncing future such grants. The brouhaha illustrated the struggle of some liberal-leaning Evangelicals to shift left without offending their own constituency.
Exemplifying a more traditional Evangelical perspective, a North Carolina ballot measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman received public support from famed Evangelist Billy Graham, who appeared in full-page newspaper ads urging passage. Similar ads with Graham’s name failed to sway later votes in more liberal states. But the wide North Carolina victory for traditional marriage showcased how conservative Evangelicals remain a potent force, premature obituaries notwithstanding.
America’s third largest religious body is the United Methodist Church, which has long been liberal and fast declining for decades. But its uniquely global membership includes surging African churches that flexed their muscle at this year’s governing General Conference by effectively tabling efforts to liberalize on marriage and sex. One Methodist theologian afterwards pronounced that United Methodism is no longer mainline, which means American liberal, but global. The United Methodists also defeated, with African support, anti-Israel divestment, as did the Presbyterian Church (USA) by a narrower margin, illustrating the limits of anti-Israel activism even in leftist religious circles. In contrast, the Episcopal Church demonstrated the spiral of old line churches by affirming transgenderism at its General Convention.
Responding to global religious persecution, American Evangelicals and Catholics, and some old line Protestants, were increasingly outspoken. Of special concern this year was a Christian Pakistani girl accused of blasphemy and an Iranian pastor, both imprisoned but ultimately released after international pressure. The Iranian pastor has since been jailed again. In northern Nigeria, Islamist terror group Boko Haram killed over 750 Christians in 2012. Amid the “Arab Spring” and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, Coptic Christians in Egypt and other religious minorities elsewhere in the Middle East are increasingly vulnerable.
Almost certainly religion will fill the headlines of 2013 no less than 2012, secularist claims to the contrary, as most of the world and most of America remain persistently religious.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century.