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2014 in review: An unsettling year, with religion in a starring role

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's flag incorporates the shahada and the seal of Muhammad in its design.

(RNS) For most of recorded history, Isis was an Egyptian goddess, a benevolent type who cared for widows and orphans, cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's flag incorporates the shahada and the seal of Muhammad in its design.

Public domain image

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s flag incorporates the shahada and the seal of Muhammad in its design.

This year, the world met the other ISIS.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State, variously known as ISIS or ISIL, dominated headlines in 2014 as a self-proclaimed caliphate sowed death and destruction across Iraq and Syria.  For some, the group confirmed their worst fears about Muslim extremists, bent on killing religious minorities and subjugating women in a quest for domination that included leveling villages and beheading hostages.

The terror wrought by the Islamic State reflected a sense of turbulence that upended international news in 2014. But it was not the only source of unrest. The Ebola virus in west Africa put the world on edge, and a bloody war between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria and the slaughter of more than 100 children at a military school in Pakistan added to the mix.

At home, America wrestled with police brutality as grand juries declined to prosecute officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. From botched prison executions to a stream of desperate migrant children flooding America’s southern border, things felt troubled, disorienting, always on the verge of breaking apart.

Religion played a large role in those stories, and in other major headlines from 2014:

A banner year for church-state court decisions

A string of court decisions paved a way for greater accommodation of religion in public life, dealing a blow to atheist groups that warned that the separation of church and state was under attack. In Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sectarian prayers at public meetings, and the justices also ruled 5-4 in favor of

Amy Bell, Kansas state coordinator for National Organization for Women, stands in front of the Hobby Lobby store in Mission, Kan. on Tuesday (March 25) and tells reporters, "It's a little scary to me," regarding the company's stance that they should not be forced by the government to provide coverage to employees for those forms of contraception they consider abortifacient. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Amy Bell, Kansas state coordinator for National Organization for Women, stands in front of the Hobby Lobby store in Mission, Kan. on Tuesday (March 25) and tells reporters, “It’s a little scary to me,” regarding the company’s stance that they should not be forced by the government to provide coverage to employees for those forms of contraception they consider abortifacient. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain in its bid to refuse a full range of contraceptive services to employees. That ruling also established religious rights for private businesses, a precedent that could have a range of ramifications. In addition, atheists lost bids to require religious groups to have greater transparency on donors; to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency; and to end a tax break for clergy housing. A federal appeals court ruled that a cross-shaped relic can remain at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero.

Pope Francis wanted open debate, and he got it

Pope Francis hosted a headline-grabbing Synod on the Family at the Vatican that publicly pitted Catholic conservatives against his reformist allies who want to open Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics as well as create more space for LGBT Catholics and their families. In an unusually public debate, 200 or so bishops talked of acknowledging the “gifts and qualities” of gay Catholics, but later backed down and failed to pass a measure on welcoming them “with respect and delicacy.” After the synod, Francis demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke, the outspoken American prelate who led the opposition to any changes. Attention now shifts to the synod’s second act, scheduled to be held in October 2015, when final decisions may be made.

A whirlwind shift on marriage equality

Jax Collins, left, and Heather Collins are overjoyed as they are married by Rev. Christopher Scuderi of Universal Heart Ministry on Monday (Dec. 23, 2013), at the Salt Lake City County offices. Hundreds of same-sex couples descended on county clerk offices around the state of Utah to request marriage licenses. A federal judge in Utah struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage last Friday, saying the law violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune

Jax Collins, left, and Heather Collins are overjoyed as they are married by Rev. Christopher Scuderi of Universal Heart Ministry on Monday (Dec. 23, 2013), at the Salt Lake City County offices. Hundreds of same-sex couples descended on county clerk offices around the state of Utah to request marriage licenses. A federal judge in Utah struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage last Friday, saying the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune

Discussions on homosexuality echoed far beyond the Vatican, however. The number of states allowing same-sex marriage doubled, from 17 to 35 in addition to the District of Columbia, after the Supreme Court declined to review a number of pro-marriage rulings from lower courts. Within major denominations, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted by wide margins to allow gay clergy, and a number of United Methodist pastors were vindicated after court battles over marrying same-sex couples. Among evangelicals, the giant relief organization World Vision said it would recognize the same-sex marriages of employees, but reversed itself within 48 hours after donors revolted. Southern Baptists held two major conferences on homosexuality, and while they held the line against homosexuality, top ethicist Russell Moore called “ex-gay” therapy harmful and “severely counterproductive.”

Boldface names:

Among the names that captured the public imagination in 2014:

  • Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll resigned after facing a series of allegations involving plagiarism, bullying and an unhealthy ego.
  • Conservative activist Bill Gothard, an advocate of home-schooling, modest attire and large families, resigned after a series of abuse allegations.
  • German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose $43 million housing renovation earned him the unwelcome nickname “Bishop Bling,” was fired by Pope Francis.
  • D.C. pastor Amy Butler became the first woman named senior pastor of New York’s storied Riverside Church, and Libby Lane was appointed the first female bishop in the Church of England.

    Controversial megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll resigned from his church Tuesday (Oct. 15), according to a document obtained by RNS. Photo courtesy of Mars Hill Church

    Controversial megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll resigned from his church Tuesday (Oct. 15), according to a document obtained by RNS. Photo courtesy of Mars Hill Church

  • Retired Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, whose election as the first openly gay bishop ruptured the Anglican Communion, announced his divorce from his husband, Mark Andrew.
  • Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were proclaimed saints by Pope Francis, and Pope Paul VI was beatified.
  • Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim was finally freed after nearly being executed for apostasy, becoming an icon for many Christians.
  • Mormon feminist Kate Kelly was excommunicated for advocating for women in the priesthood.
  • Rabbi David Saperstein was confirmed as the first non-Christian U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
  • Blase Cupich was installed as the new archbishop of Chicago, Pope Francis’ first major appointment to the U.S. hierarchy.
  • D.C. Rabbi Barry Freundel was fired after allegedly installing a hidden camera in the mikvah, or ritual bath, used by women at his prominent Georgetown synagogue.

    Kate Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement, is facing possible excommunication for her views on gender inequality in the Mormon Church.

    Creative Commons image by Katrina Barker Anderson

    Kate Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement, is facing possible excommunication for her views on gender inequality in the Mormon Church.

Mormon misconceptions

In a series of online essays, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tried to carefully debunk popular caricatures of Mormon beliefs, a remarkable exercise in the real-time evolution of a distinctly homegrown American religion. No, the church said, Mormons don’t get their own planet in the afterlife, and no, there’s nothing “magical” about sacred temple garments. No, founder Joseph Smith didn’t literally translate an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll as part of LDS scriptures, and yes, Smith practiced plural marriage — as many as 40 wives, the church conceded.

America, meet the Satanists

Satanists, curiously, had a big year in 2014. In Oklahoma City, the New York-based Satanic Temple unveiled plans to erect a monument to Satan on the state Capitol grounds (right next to a Ten Commandments monument); in Boston, the group held a controversial “Black Mass” near Harvard despite an outcry from local Catholics. Filmmaker Roma Downey, however, cut Satan from her biblical epic, “Son of God,” after some viewers pointed out that the actor playing Satan looked too much like President Obama.

Passages

The Satanic Temple's logo features Baphomet and a pentacle below the organization's initials.

Image courtesy The Satanic Temple

The Satanic Temple’s logo features Baphomet and a pentacle below the organization’s initials.

Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots, a Pentecostal snake-handler and star of the reality show “Snake Salvation,” died of a snakebite at age 42; Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, infamous for his “God Hates Fags” rallies, died at 84; charismatic evangelist (and friend of Pope Francis) Tony Palmer died in a motorcycle crash; Pentecostal preacher Myles Munroe died in a plane crash in the Bahamas at age 60;  right-to-die activist Brittany Maynard died at age 29 after a public battle with brain cancer; and the Alban Institute, which had provided resources and consulting for mainline Protestant churches, closed its doors after 40 years.

YS/MG END ECKSTROM

 

About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.

9 Comments

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  • At least one major oversight in this article.

    “The Only Cure for Homosexuals is that they be put to death”
    Pastor Robbie Gallaty
    Tennessee Megachurch
    Sept. 2014

    Religion remains a threat to peace, equality, science, decency, democracy and culture.
    Civilization is imperiled by these ancient bogey gods.

    One thing is certain: the number of “Nones” will continue to grow next year. May it reach 40% of the population.

    ___
    AM
    For Peace, Civility and The Separation of Church and State

  • Max, please retire. I suspect y\ou would not have so much to say about Catholicism and religion if you were not so deeply disturbed by your experience with it.
    I do not say you are not justified, only that this and similar web sites are not useful outlets for you to vent your feelings or retaliate.
    a. Probably many readers disagree with you.
    b. Certainly, no one will change anything because of what you write, if they finish reading it.
    c. Result: You merely embarass yourself with your diatribes and waste the time of readers at this and any other site showing your posts.
    If the parents, priests, preachers, teachers or whoever who have affected your life need to be corrected, you won’t correct them here. If they need forgiveness, foregiveness is the beautiful act that you seem called to offer, privately, not here. That is what, I pray, God will inspire you to do and give you strength to do it. God bless you.

  • @Bill Steo,

    “You merely embarass yourself with your diatribes and waste the time…”

    I’m touched by such caring /

    Sorry, but I think it is important to call attention to evil.
    Maybe You never saw a murdered homosexual – so you don’t care?
    I get that.

    And your son isn’t gay, I guess? So you don’t have a reason to care about other people’s sons. I get that.

    I have never written anything that would ’embarrass’ me.
    Religion is primitive nonsense and a profound danger to the world.

    I’m not gay. But I care.

    So I’ll wave my Atheist freak flag, thanks.
    But thanks for caring about my time and not wanting to see me embarrassed.

  • I suspect y\ou would not have so much to say about Catholicism and religion if you were not so deeply disturbed by your experience with it.

    No, Bill. He’s just disturbed. Any contact he had with the Church, the gas company, the postal service, or the CBS Evening News is purely incidental.

  • @Art Deco,

    “He’s just disturbed.”

    Because I have empathy for VICTIMS of religion – like these:

    James Foley and others beheaded, by ISIS in 2014
    220 Million women world-wide need access to contraception
    47,000 die of unsafe abortions worldwide
    The states of Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas have outlawed science education and replaced it with Creationist garbage.

    Religion puts the world in danger – for nothing good in return.
    If caring about such things makes me disturbed, perhaps more people should be as disturbed as I am.

  • Dear Max,

    I don’t claim that religous people do horrible things, but that’s what the atheïst do to. Like in China, where there still is a atheïst governement gays are prosecution and ten of millions girl are aborted, because they are girl. In the atheïstic Sovjet Union tens of millions people were tortured and killed. They killed more people than all the combined religious war combined. And no Stalin wasn’t a christian, he saw faith as opium for the masses, like Marx.

    Does that make all atheïsts dangerous or primitive? Of course not, just the crimes commited by some religious people doesn’t make all the religious people in the world primitive or dangerous. But that’s exactly what I hear everytime. People blame me for the crusades, but that’s a 1000 years ago. I wasn’t even alive back then, so I couldn’t possible be held accountable. Just as I can’t hold you accountable for what happened in the Sovjet-Union or even in Korea or under Mao in China.

    I don’t mean you mustn’t speak out of things that are clearily wrong, but stop generalising. Generalising is dangerous and leads to nothing good. Sadly there are people who are nuts and sadly violent, but all we can do is to try to live together and respect eachother. That’s the only cure for this world falling apart. I hope you agree.

  • “Generalising is dangerous…”

    First, you are breaking your own rule.

    Besides, generalizing is extremely helpful when confronting a bad idea.
    How else are we to cure cancer? Except to say all cancer is bad.
    How else are we to confront rape? Except to say all rape is bad.
    How else are we to confront slavery? Except to say all slavery is bad.

    There are some things which are generally true.
    Religion is a despicable practice and has shown itself to be a threat to the world.

    Religion is a danger to humanity. This may be generalizing – but I am calling on people to question the claims of religion, question whether God makes sense!

    Religion is not the only danger in the world.
    But it is a primary danger in most countries.

    You are being a little sloppy with your comments about Atheism:
    China, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – you must be very careful about your claims that these are ‘atheist’ regimes. They are Agrarian Religious Cults, Absolutist and Totalitarian in nature – they claim absolute knowledge and absolute adherence under penalty of death – these are traits which occur only in a religion.

    Just because Agrarian Religious Cults are not Christian, that does not mean they are without a Dogma or Deity! They are not examples of Atheism!

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