A depressing year of religion news

University of the Philippines students display glasses with lit candles and a placard as a tribute to those killed in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., during a protest at the school campus in Quezon city, Metro Manila, on June 14, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Erik De Castro

(RNS) The 2016 election – with its polarizing campaign and surprising result – produced not only an unexpected president. It also gave us several of the year’s biggest religion news stories.

And while religion gave billions of people meaning in their lives and inspired good deeds, in news coverage it was linked to bloodshed and blamed for fueling bigotry.

Here is a recap of key stories and trends this year:


Sometimes a number tells us a lot. This year, that number was 81. That was the percentage of white evangelicals who, if the exit polls were accurate, cast ballots for Trump. They helped sway the vote in a way that suggested predictions of the decline of “white Christian America” may be premature.

Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Despite some pretty outspoken reservations on the part of some influential conservative Christians about Trump’s character, he also had his Christian boosters. For so-called Trumpvangelicals, a man whose predatory view of sex seemed more in tune with the movie “Animal House” was worthy of the highest office in the land.

And it followed the rejection of primary candidates who seemed to more clearly espouse their conservative values.

But can they count on the brash real estate tycoon and reality TV star who has been, it seems, on both sides of almost every issue?

So far, yes. The conservatives’ hand in his victory — some of them believe it was actually God’s hand — seems to have led the president-elect to stack his Cabinet with religious conservatives — including a climate change denier and a national security adviser who called Islam “a political ideology hiding behind a religion.”

What’s in a name?

Given evangelicals’ support for Trump, some started questioning the label. They felt the movement had become politicized and its ideals were falling by the wayside. And some just couldn’t identify with the evangelicalism of some key pro-Trump pastors, especially those who promise riches as a reward for faith.

“Any definition that includes both a health and wealth prosperity gospel teacher and me is a word that’s so broad it’s meaningless,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told RNS evangelical beat reporter Emily McFarlan Miller.

What is clear is that the election exposed deep fissures in American evangelical Christianity.

Evangelicals and Muslims

One fissure that broke open separately from the election was over the theological view of nonevangelicals, and in particular Muslims. It began last December when Wheaton College began termination proceedings against professor Larycia Hawkins after she donned a Muslim veil and asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

It was meant as a gesture of solidarity with American Muslims but was seen by administrators and donors at the school, known as the “evangelical Harvard,” as a violation of its statement of faith. Hawkins eventually departed Wheaton, leaving unanswered the question of how far evangelicals can go in accepting the legitimacy of other faiths’ views of God.

Religious bigotry in the campaign

On the campaign trail Trump took aim not at Muslims’ beliefs but at Muslims’ loyalty.

“I think Islam hates us,” he said after proposing a ban on immigrants who profess the faith, which he later modified.

He tried to justify profiling American Muslims and surveillance of American mosques. And he attacked the Gold Star parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, after they took the stage at the Democratic convention to endorse Hillary Clinton. That led to an outcry against the Republican candidate, but Muslims reported widespread harassment by his supporters.

Many American Muslims are worried about their future under a Trump administration. But at least they have a new and, to some, surprising ally. The American Jewish Committee formed a partnership against bigotry with the Islamic Society of North America, both concerned by the vitriol Trump campaign unleashed against minorities.

Islamic conflicts

A portion of the anti-Muslim sentiment could be considered a fearful reaction to the immigrant crisis and the violence stemming from political and theological conflicts within the Islamic world, much of it fueled by jihadi violence and the 13-century-old Sunni-Shiite schism.

After more than half a decade, the war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and sent millions fleeing. There was at least some relief across the border as Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces backed by American advisers and air power pushed Islamic State militants out of key cities in the north, opening up the possibility for refugees – including many Christians – to return to their homes. Many living on the Nineveh Plain had been threatened with death if they didn’t convert to Islam or agree to pay a tax.

In Europe, a man ISIS claimed afterward was its “soldier” drove a Renault cargo truck through the beachside French city of Nice, killing 84 people and injuring hundreds. Two weeks later, armed men stormed a church in northern France and slit the throat of a priest as he was celebrating Mass. The attacks were cited when several French beach towns decided to ban burkinis.

There were massive bombings of churches in Pakistan and Egypt. Atheist bloggers, academics and a Hindu priest were hacked to death in Bangladesh.

And in the United States, a Muslim man opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people, and swearing allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Was there any good news?

Not all stories were depressing. With his Oct. 31 visit to Sweden to mark the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis took a big step toward healing a division that rivals the the Sunni-Shiite rift, if not in length of time then in the wars it generated.

Speaking of bygones, a Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch met for the first time – in Cuba of all places – since the East-West Schism of 1054. But an attempt to hold the first pan-Orthodox council in 1,200 years fell short because of a Russian boycott.

And while the world seemed to grow accustomed to Pope Francis’ papacy, he did cause a stir by appearing to suggest that remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion.

In North Dakota, under the flags of 280 Native American nations and sustained by their spiritual practices, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe rallied to stop the construction of a pipeline planned through what they consider to be sacred grounds.

In Oregon, United Methodists at their General Conference grappled with demands for LGBT equality and formed a panel to consider them. And in Britain, Anglican primates voted to suspend the LGBT-affirming U.S. Episcopal Church from certain policy decisions.

In memoriam

Religious figures who died this year included Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, dispensationalist author Tim Lahaye, Christian cartoonist Jack Chick, Billy Graham crusade song leader Cliff Barrows, Pakistan’s “disco mullah” Junaid Jamshed and Brazil’s “people’s bishop,” Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns.

Also mourned for their religious acts, inspiration or views were boxer Muhammad Ali; Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia; activist Phyllis Schlafly; singers David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen; and Fidel Castro, an atheist who welcomed more popes to his nation than any other leader.

After a year of downbeat developments, few may have regrets about it ending. Indeed, some may even curse 2016. Here’s to hoping that next year brings better news, religious and otherwise.

About the author

Jerome Socolovsky


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  • Depressing religious year in 2016? True, but isn’t every year the same story…Sunni-Shia sectarian war; Trump-evangelical alliance of hate; Christian/Muslim/Hindu persecution of women, LGBT, reproductive rights and non-believers; Fundamentalists of every religious stripe smiting secular society…the usual atrocities, etc. in the name of religion…

    …Maybe lets finish up 2016 with happy holidays for everybody…then back to the God inspired carnage in 2017 🙁

  • This article is a very succinct and comprehensive summing up of the major religious issues that had an impact in our world over the past year.

  • That’s odd. Why (other than liberal media bias) are readers being told that they need to be “depressed” ?

  • It looks like religion has been failing in its mission to bring peace and harmony to the world. This has been going on for about 5,000 years. Either the gods are powerless or they don’t exist. Maybe it’s up to mankind.

  • Jim writes —
    Either the gods are powerless or they don’t exist. Maybe it’s up to mankind.

    Damien writes —
    …Maybe lets finish up 2016 with happy holidays for everybody…then back to the God inspired carnage in 2017 🙁

    Jerome writes —
    Here’s to hoping that next year brings better news, religious and otherwise.

    All can happen. Jerome’s is the best.

  • Or the ones we call god’s are simply demons.

    Just because someone is a god doesn’t mean he is good. And just because someone who is a god is telling you something doesn’t mean he is telling you the truth,

  • Yes it is Depressing, But, the mask has be ripped off Evangelicalism and now we know it is just a guise to hide hate and Christian Totalitarian Nationalism behind Bible quotes and belief.

  • Y’all can wallow in gloom and doom and depression if you want to, since the RNS headline apparently wants you to. “Religion” may have “failed” you (or vice versa), but the living Lord Jesus Christ ain’t failed His people one bit.

    Sat down in the same pew last Sunday just 15 feet away from a woman whose doctor was talking leg amputation just 12 months ago. Walked slower than a snail, and in visible pain, with a walker. Desperately came for prayer repeatedly. Still does. But now she has no more walker, she walks much faster, she can shop at the store by herself again on TWO legs.

    Look past all this RNS mess and see God still changing lives and doing great things in both 2016 and 2017. He don’t fail.

  • I have to agree especially and specifically to a bad year in the US for religion. Evangelicals have a lot of work to do sorting out whether their god is found in the bible or in political power, control and wealth. Are they going to focus on legislating their religion on America or cleaning up their own ranks?

    I would not be surprised to see a greater public separation of the faith focused evangelicals from the power craving group. It’s easy to name the leaders of the latter, with the little Falwell and little Graham at the head. I think there are many options for leadership of the first group, but by their very nature, they are not attention seekers.

    Evangelicals have done many good things and can continue in that way if they remember to fulfill this end of life phrase, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

  • Ben in Oakland, The Bible records several tests to use to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21). That should provide you with plenty of “ammo” for separating the voice of God among the din of other voices we are all subject to.

  • And the Bible is the word o’ god. Which means my point still stands.

    The Bible tells us to burn witches, which we know do not exist in the biblical sense. How many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered horribly for a crime which we know does not exist.

  • And the Bible is the word o’ god. Which means my point still stands.

    The Bible tells us to burn witches, which we know do not exist in the biblical sense. How many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered horribly for a crime which we know does not exist.

    So, no, the Bible does not provide any reliability.

  • I’m not wallowing in doom and gloom. I’m 60 and am at peace with myself and the world, actually. I also know from history that, overall, the world is a better place now than at any time.

    Religion hasn’t failed me because I don’t put faith in it. But for the billions that do, it must suck. Christians must struggle with why god lets all this evil go on. It’s god’s plan, it’s a test from satan, god works in mysterious ways – these are lame excuses. Reconciling religion with reality has to be rough. Fortunately I don’t have that struggle.

  • In a summary of the year’s developments in religion, the following passage astonished me:

    “Also mourned for their religious acts, inspiration or views were boxer Muhammad Ali; Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia; activist Phyllis Schlafly; singers David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen; and Fidel Castro, an atheist who welcomed more popes to his nation than any other leader.”

    Any discussion of religion that ranges from Jesus Christ and Moses to this array of transient actors lacks serious meaning. This is the stuff of pop analysis and self absorption, wading in philosophy and imagining great depth.

  • The problem with Atheism or a non-religious life is that it is has no final purpose at all. If life ends in death it is without hope and all for nothing. However, such a worldview is highly irrational, because the faculty of reason is closely bound up with the idea of purpose. The final cause, as Aristotle already knew, is the deepest reason of things. Without the idea of final causality, it is impossble to find an answer to the question why things are.

  • Ben in Oakland, No. No more than a camera is responsible for the pictures it takes, should we reject the Bible based on our modern, 2016 knowledge. It’s unfair to judge an ancient text based on 2016 standards.

  • No no no no no no!

    I have been informed by Good Christians repeatedly that god’s word is eternal, unchanging, moral, and good for all time, in secula saeculorum amen.

    You can’t just go aren’t picking and choosing the parts you find untrue and ungood. Once you start rejecting any bit of it, where do you stop?

  • Ben in Oakland, I dithered quite a bit before answering your note. There are parts of the Bible that, admittedly, I don’t understand, but I think it is up to the Holy Spirit to guide me through them rather than me issuing a blanket condemnation of the Ancient text. What part of the Bible do you want to apply to your life today? (How about the NT? (The OT is harder.))

  • Are you serious? It is irrational to believe in an afterlife because a book of myths says you are? Each religion has it’s own different view of the afterlife. Are you sure yours is right. It’s our irrational side that can’t accept death and creates a myth to avoid that realization. There are things I know and things I’ll never know. I can deal with that and don’t need to make something up.

  • I’m sympathetic with almost the entirety of Mr. Socolovsky’s opinions in this article, except for one teeny tiny twist in the In Memoriam closure:
    “Fidel Castro, an atheist who welcomed more popes to his nation than any other leader.”

    Gee, if I were a dictatorial tyrant who ruled with an iron fist for forty nine years, I’m sure I could set a Pope-welcoming, public relations-polishing record too.
    Let’s not fool ourselves. Fidel Castro was not a nice guy. In fact, he was what I fear (in my darkest moments) Donald Trump may become.

    Otherwise, a spot on op-ed!

  • Fido Castro? You sir are insane. Prince was a druggie who died of a drug overdose. Leonard Cohen wrote a song about sexual intercourse which many people think is a religious song.

    I think you need to find another profession — religion ain’t your gig.

  • Why does life ending in death mean life is without hope?
    I’ve often heard similar statements as to why we need religion and it always makes me think there is something seriously screwed up with someone who looks at life in such a way.
    The purpose of life is what you bring to it. If having something of you existing after your death is important to you then build relationships, have children, build objects or Institutions that will outlive yourself.
    The world will be around long after you have gone. Work out what matters to you and spend your life doing it. If believing in God is important to you them go ahead and do so, but suggesting that no one else can have a meaningful life with a belief in God is simply narrow minded.

  • A final purpose is your problem, your existential angst, your inability to cope with reality.

    Not mine.

  • It is not our “irrational side” that cannot accept death. Irrational beings, animals, have no problem with accepting death. It is only rational beings, humans, who make a problem of death. It is thus not our irrational but our rational side that cannot accept death. And this is because reason has a universal perspective and is able to ask questions about a first cause and ultimate purpose of things. Reason is always about meaning.

  • All the things you point to as purposes don’t have the meaning of a final purpose. They are partial purposes within this life, but the question is: what is the final and complete purpose of this life itself? What do we exist for? This is simply the rational question that asks for the reason of things. For reason and purpose are intimately connected. If one says that there is no such final purpose, then one essentially says that reason itself is absurd.

    I think it is a narrow minded anti-philosophical provincialism to reject the idea of God. The universal openness of reason inevitably leads to the ideas of a universal cause which is also the universal end-goal or final purpose of existence.

  • You seem to have a problem with the basic concept of “Narrow minded”.
    If i said there is no reason for anyone to believe in God, it would be narrow minded.
    If I said there is no reason for anyone to not believe in god, that would be narrow minded.
    For a person to say “I don’t believe in god. I looked at the idea and it doesn’t do it for me” is by definition NOT “narrow minded”.

    You are saying that everyone HAS to have a need and belief in a “final purpose” and a belief that “everything has to have a meaning”. You don’t provide any evidence to support this theory beyond “any rational person must think like me and if they don’t they are irrational”.

    Lightening has a purpose. It’s a way of equalising electrical charges between different areas.
    Lightening striking a particular person does not have to have a reason.
    Humans have a tendency to look for reasons even when there aren’t any because we have evolved the ability to see patterns.
    The down side of that ability to see patterns is that we tend to find patterns even when they don’t really exist.
    So yes, there is a reason for how you look at the world, but that reason doesn’t make you right.

    And in answer to the question you didn’t ask (that wouldn’t make sense in your philosophy).
    I neither believe in god nor disbelieve. As it stands it isn’t a something that can be tested for true/false.I don’t consider the question “what do we exist for” to be very rational and I don’t consider the idea that there is no final purpose in life to make the idea of “Reason” absurd.

  • You cannot avoid the idea of a First Cause of being, and all that it implies, without making the entire faculty of reason senseless. For reason is the faculty which asks for the causes of things.

    This is not a matter of how to look at the world, for the faculty of reason always trancends particular perspectives.

  • “Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.[1] It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, mathematics, and art and is normally considered to be a definitive characteristic of human nature.[2] Reason, or an aspect of it, is sometimes referred to as rationality.”

    Saying “There is God”, an untestifiable concept, as “the answer for everything” is not reason. You might as well say “42”.

    Every post you have written here is just repeating “I’m right, you’re wrong, because GOD!!!!!!”
    That’s not a reasoned argument. That’s a statement of faith.
    Unless you respond with something beyond that I’ll not respond further.

  • No, what I say is not a statement of faith at all. It is nothing else but a philosophical analysis of the capacity of reason. Demonstrating that a First Cause (i.e. God) exists is by natural reason. Aristotle knew this already, when he concluded from the analysis of movement and change to the existence of an Unmoved Mover (i.e. God), in his VIIIth Book of Physics.

    Your error seems to be that of limiting the domain of natural reason to that of empirical science. But the domain of reason is much broader. For example the philosophical reflection on the nature of empirical science itself is not empirical science. Yet it is an act of natural reason.