While there was nothing new about someone entering a religious sanctuary and gunning down the faithful, the bloodshed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was truly historic.
Was that 2017’s most important religion story?
What about Myanmar troops forcing half a million Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh, with reports of children being beheaded and people burned alive? What about the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, which turned into #ChurchToo, with women describing soul-wracking private tragedies?
For me, the year’s biggest story took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacist marchers shouted anti-Semitic curses and claimed God was on their side. Meanwhile, clergy prayed and sang hymns in counter-protests. Southern Baptists and other believers proclaimed the alt-right was working for Satan.
But that wasn’t the top story, either, according to journalists voting in the Religion News Association (RNA) poll for 2017. No, once again this was a year dominated by Donald Trump and armies of evangelicals who, in myriad mainstream news reports, marched in lockstep support behind his political agenda.
Trump was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, after “his inauguration triggered upheaval across a number of religious fronts, among them the role of evangelical support of his administration; fierce debates over Islam, race and religious liberty; the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and executive orders relating to immigration and terrorism,” said the RNA announcement.
Meanwhile, in a variety of public debates, bitter Trump-era rifts among Christian conservatives kept getting deeper and wider. This was perfectly captured in a New York Times forum after the Alabama defeat of old Religious Right hero Roy Moore.
“Christians don’t get to compartmentalize. When we’re the living representatives of Christ’s church, we don’t get to proudly support politicians who lie and commit dishonorable acts for the sake of a few policy wins,” argued David French, a Harvard Law graduate known for his religious liberty work. He opposed Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I belong to the camp of Christians who are grateful when Trump makes good decisions but also quite mindful that our political witness is inseparable from our Christian witness. Thus, we have no option but to condemn his worst impulses and work to counteract his toxic influence on our larger culture.”
John Zmirak, author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism,” countered: “We’re fallen creatures trying to render unto Caesar as well as unto God. The nexus between those two is how we as sovereign citizens direct our government to treat the vulnerable. ... If the circumstances in which God saw fit to place us make us choose between the ‘squeaky clean’ persecutor of the unborn and the Little Sisters of the Poor ... the choice is obvious. If we pick the persecutor because he pleases us more aesthetically, better fits our internal self-image, then we will answer for that on the Day of Judgment.”
Here’s the rest of this year’s RNA Top 10:
2. The Charlottesville march pits alt-right activists against throngs of opposing demonstrators, as well as local and national clergy. One counter-protester is killed, and others wounded, when a marcher drives his vehicle into the crowd.
3. A U.S. travel ban on several majority-Muslim nations inspires protests, before courts delay it. Trump vows to fight “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term avoided by his predecessors.
4. Trump causes global debate by acting on previous U.S. calls for recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. He seeks continued access to Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites.
5. Backed by Buddhist-majority clerics, Myanmar security forces use a campaign of atrocities and intimidation to drive more than half a million Muslim Rohingya across border into Bangladesh.
6. After conflicts with Christians in his family, a gunman kills 26 adults and children at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Many religious leaders increase security efforts in their sanctuaries.
7. Despite allegations of misconduct with teen girls, Roy Moore remains the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Many evangelicals back his campaign, while others openly reject him. (He was defeated, after the RNA ballot was created.)
8. Trump and GOP senators honor their promises to place conservatives on U.S. federal courts, most notably Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
9. Some black NFL players cite Christian faith while kneeling to protest racial injustice. Confederate symbols are removed from Washington National Cathedral and some other churches.
10. Lutherans and others mark 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with events examining Martin Luther’s complex legacy.
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)