(RNS) Imagine if Martin Luther and John Calvin had YouTube.
Armed with Gutenberg’s printing press, the two reformers wrested Europe from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church and changed Christianity forever.
What would they have done with a medium that can zip text, music, and, perhaps most importantly, videos across the globe in a matter of seconds?
“The importance of YouTube, the importance of the Internet is huge for the next coming generation of the church,” Jefferson Bethke told NPR earlier this year.
The 23-year-old Christian poet should know. His four-minute video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” has been viewed more than 23.5 million times since he posted it on YouTube last January.
Bethke wasn’t the only religious figure to find an audience, or apostles, on the Internet. Indeed, among other epithets, 2012 might be dubbed the Year of YouTube – and that’s especially true on the religion beat.
Religious videos sparked international riots, stirred up the U.S. presidential campaign, sought to comfort LGBT youth and urged Christians to rethink their religious ideals.
In chronological order, here are seven religious videos that made headlines in 2012.
1. “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”
Bethke banged off the year with “Hate Religion/Love Jesus,” a short spoken-word poem that he and a friend shot with a hand-held camera in empty courtyard.
The message is blunt: By focusing on partisan politics, moral rules and building churches, Christian leaders miss the point of Jesus’ message. “Jesus came to abolish religion,” Bethke says. “Religion puts you in bondage, but Jesus sets you free.”
A member of Mars Hill Church, Bethke lives in Tacoma, Wash. But as the Washington Post notes, he tapped into a national trend: young Americans’ flight from organized religion.
“Bethke perfectly captures the mood, and in my mind the confusion, of a lot of earnest, young Christians,” Kevin DeYoung, a Reformed Pastor, wrote in his blog on The Gospel Coalition. DeYoung, however, was also one of the video’s sharpest critics, calling it “unhelpful and misleading.”
2. “It Gets Better,” at Brigham Young University
In April, students at Mormon-run Brigham Young University released a message for young Latter-day Saints struggling with same-sex attraction.
“It gets better,” said the gay and lesbian BYU students, joining the nationwide campaign to combat suicide and depression among LGBT teens.
The video was evidence of a changing culture at BYU and in the Mormon church, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
“We’re trying to live it and create new spaces for us to be gay and Mormon and be active in the church,” said Adam White, 21, who appeared and in the YouTube video. “That in and of itself is an ‘it gets better’ message.”
In December, the Mormon church unveiled a new website that maintains its teachings against homosexuality, but alters its tone to encourage empathy and understanding.
3. “Innocence of Muslims”
“Innocence of Muslims,” was the most controversial video posted on YouTube in 2012, maybe ever.
On Sept. 11, the crude, 14-minute trailer, rife with bad acting and even worse dialogue, set off a string of anti-American protests and riots in two dozen countries after it was broadcast by a Glenn Beck-type figure in Egypt.
Early reports suggested that American pastor Terry Jones produced “Innocence,” and blamed the film for a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, where four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed. Both reports proved unfounded.
One of the producers, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, originally said he was a wealthy Israeli. In fact, he was a former bong salesman, meth supplier and convicted con artist. He was sentenced to one year in prison in November for violating the terms of his parole.
Nakoula, 55, who was born in Egypt, where Copts have been long faced persecution, cited Muslim extremism as his motivation. The opening moments of the film portray Egyptian police standing idle as Copts’ homes are ransacked by Muslim mobs.
As Huffington Post’s Paul Brandeis Raushenbush notes, “the intentionally provocative film was most important for its potentially lasting implications for the debate around blasphemy and censorship on the web.”
4. Obama’s 2007 speech on race, Katrina and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
In the waning months of the 2012 presidential campaign, conservative media tried to launch an “October surprise.”
Tucker Carlson and his Daily Caller website resurrected a 2007 video in which President Obama profusely praises his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and suggests that racism played a role in the federal government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Fox News host Sean Hannity, conservative blogger Matt Drudge and Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller website hyped the video, saying it had never been seen in full. Hannity said the video offers a “glimpse into the mind of the real Barack Obama.”
Media critics, however, noted that Obama’s speech to black pastors at Hampton University in Virginia was widely covered by the media in June 2007.
In the video, Obama gives a “special shout-out to my pastor, the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He’s a friend and a great leader. Not just in Chicago, but all across the country,” as the audience cheers. “Please everybody, give an extraordinary welcome to my pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright Jr.”
Obama distanced himself from Wright during the 2008 campaign after videos surfaced of the fiery pastor preaching sermons that caustically criticize American political policies.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, called the video “a transparent attempt to change the subject” from another video, in which Mitt Romney dismissed 47 percent of Americans as “dependent upon government.”
5. Secretly taped Mormon temple ceremonies
Later in October, blogger Andrew Sullivan posted a surreptitiously taped video of sacred Mormon temple rituals.
“Many may object to my posting video footage of the kind of ceremony that Romney will be extremely familiar with, but which even many Mormons do not get to see,” Sullivan said. “My view is that if you are running for president, transparency is essential.”
But many Mormons were deeply offended by the public display of private rituals.
“Temple ceremonies are held sacred by LDS people and are generally not discussed in casual or public settings,” said Mormon writer Joanna Brooks. “The Internet, however, has complicated the ability of LDS people to maintain those boundaries of privacy.”
Brooks also refuted Sullivan’s stated motivation. “Sullivan says his goal is `transparency,’ but his presentation is designed to make Romney (and Mormons) look menacingly alien.”
The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, which aims to counter public criticism of Mormonism, called Sullivan’s post one of the worst media reports of the so-called “Mormon moment.”
6. Mitt Romney talking about Mormonism, abortion and the Second Coming in 2007
Mitt Romney largely avoided detailed discussion about his Mormon faith in the 2012 campaign. But a 2007 video resurrected last October caught the candidate in a rare moment of candor.
The video, which liberals gleefully shared on the Internet, shows Romney arguing off-air with an Iowa radio talk show host about the tenets of Mormonism.
The host, Jan Mickelson, grills Romney about his shifting positions on abortion and quizzes the candidate about Mormons’ belief that Jesus will return to Missouri during the Second Coming. Romney appears angered by the interrogation.
“I don’t like coming on the air and having you go after my church and me,” Romney tells Mickelson, “I’m not running as a Mormon, and I get a little tired of coming on shows like yours and having it all about Mormon.”
Patrick Mason, a scholar of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, told the Washington Post that the video, which has been viewed nearly 3.5 million times on YouTube, was a “last-ditch attempt to bring out the Mormon card, to bring out the weirdness,” in the waning months of the presidential campaign.
7. Angus T. Jones’ testimony
For just a “half” a man, Angus T. Jones made a whole big ruckus.
The teen TV star – the “half” in “Two and a Half Men,” a highly rated CBS sitcom – appeared in a YouTube video in November in which he trashes his raunchy show and testifies to his conversion to Seventh-day Adventism.
“You cannot be a true God-fearing person and be on a television show like that,” says Jones, 19, in a video posted online by Forerunner Chronicles. “I know I can’t. I’m not OK with what I’m learning, what the Bible says, and being on that television show.”
“Please stop watching it,” says Jones, who reportedly earns $350,000 per episode and has starred in the show since he was 10. “Please stop filling your head with filth.”
Jones later apologized for his comments, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church distanced itself from the controversial man, Christopher Hudson, who posted the video on YouTube, where it has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times.