They made a mark on the religious scene this decade; some rose, others fell

This list of 12 — drawn from stories RNS has covered between 2010 and 2019 — offers a one-time retrospective of the personalities (and not a few of the issues) that dominated the religious scene this past decade.

RNS graphic by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — The decade that ends Tuesday (Dec. 31) saw the rise and fall of many newsmakers who stood out, in part or in full, because of their beliefs or religious traditions. 

This list of 12 — drawn from stories RNS has covered between 2010 and 2019 — is far from comprehensive and mostly U.S. based. Sex abuse figures prominently in the lives of many whose fortunes sank. Still, the list offers a one-time retrospective on the personalities (and not a few of the issues) that dominated the religious scene, for good or ill:

They rose:

Pope Francis

The first Jesuit to become pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina, surprised nearly all when he was elected in 2013. His emphasis on helping society’s outcasts and his decision to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor, was just the beginning. Over the course of nearly seven years, he has welcomed open debate in the church, often incurring the wrath of the Roman Curia — furious with his reforms and unrelenting in its desire to hold the line on traditional doctrine. He has become a premier spokesperson on climate change, inveighed against the mistreatment of migrants, declared the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases and the use and possession of atomic weapons as “immoral.” He has not always dealt well with the sexual abuse crisis. In 2018, he defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering for a notorious priest. Many of his critics say much more needs to be done. And, indeed, there are signs of discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right. But the vast majority of U.S. Catholics, while they are critical of his handling of the sex abuse crisis, continue to have a favorable opinion of the pontiff.

Pope Francis waves during the Angelus noon prayer he delivers from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The Rev. William J. Barber II

On the day he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” award — Oct. 4, 2018 — William J. Barber II was unavailable for comment. That’s because he was arrested in Chicago while participating in a “Fight for $15” rally convened by fast food and other workers demanding higher wages and the right to unionize. The Disciples of Christ bishop’s stature has grown well beyond his North Carolina base. A New Yorker article called him “an indispensable leader in the civil rights landscape.” With his revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, he has also been compared to that civil rights icon. He spoke in a prime-time slot at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, becoming a nationally recognizable figure. The campaign he co-leads with the Rev. Liz Theoharis is intended to lift up issues of poverty, racism, voter suppression and ecological devastation. It is planning a series of rallies across the nation leading up to an assembly on the national mall in Washington, D.C. on June 20, 2020. Barber uses the Bible and the Constitution as twin documents, calling on Americans to challenge injustice and economic exploitation.

The Rev. William Barber, center, during a rally protesting President Donald Trump’s policies outside of the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 12, 2019. RNS Photo by Jack Jenkins

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Serious health challenges have not set back the 86-year-old Supreme Court justice who has become a pop-culture icon, referred to by fans simply as “RBG.” This decade, she has been the subject of a best-selling book, an Emmy-winning documentary, and the Hollywood biopic “On the Basis of Sex.” In October, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History mounted a traveling exhibit inspired by and named for the book — “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Though not especially observant, Ginsburg has increasingly drawn on her Jewish heritage, linking her legal profession and the Jewish tradition. “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically,” she said. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.” In Jerusalem at the premiere of “RBG,” Ginsburg talked about the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world,” and pulled out her pocket copy of America’s foundational legal text, the Constitution.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reacts to applause as she is introduced by William Treanor, dean and executive vice president of Georgetown University Law Center, at its campus in Washington, on Sept. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Larycia Hawkins

In 2013, she was the first tenured black female faculty member at Wheaton College, considered the Harvard of Christian schools. Then in 2015, after candidate Donald Trump called for a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Larycia Hawkins wrote a Facebook post announcing her intention to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims. “They, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” wrote Hawkins, a political scientist. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Within days, the college placed her on leave and moved to fire her for violating the spirit of Wheaton’s statement of faith. Hawkins and the school eventually agreed to part ways, but the episode encapsulated the difficulty evangelicals have with Muslims and black women and made her a celebrity of sorts. Hawkins eventually accepted a position at the University of Virginia. A documentary about her plight, called “Same God,” has begun airing on PBS stations across the country and is being used in churches and mosques.

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Rachael Denhollander

She’s best known for blowing the whistle on serial child molester Larry Nassar in 2016, alleging that the doctor for the USA Gymnastics Olympic team sexually assaulted her when she was a teen gymnast. But Rachael Denhollander was sexually abused even before that — in church. The gymnast turned lawyer, turned advocate for increased awareness and protections for survivors of child sexual abuse is now focused on her own denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention — in its efforts to grapple with sexual abuse scandals in its churches. “The SBC has, over and over again, trampled on these precious (abuse) survivors, and that is why they are afraid to speak up,” she said at the inaugural Caring Well conference, organized by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission earlier this year. She’s committed to making sure church leaders never trample on them again.

Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, right, discusses the Southern Baptist Convention’s history of addressing sexual abuse with ERLC President Russell Moore at the Caring Well conference in Dallas, on Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Karen Race Photography 2019

Ilhan Omar

The first-term Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota is a pathbreaker on many levels. She is one of two Muslim women first elected to Congress in 2018 (the other is Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib). But she is the first to wear a head covering. And she’s the first Somali-American and the first naturalized citizen from Africa to serve in Congress. Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, fled with her family to bordering Kenya as a girl and arrived as an asylum seeker to the U.S. in 1992. Eight years later she became a U.S. citizen at age 17. In 2016, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Her term in Congress has not been smooth. A frequent critic of Israel, Omar has been accused of anti-Semitism. She has faced racist threats and attacks, not the least from President Trump, who has repeatedly targeted her. Still, she has emerged as one of the most visible and outspoken politicians in Washington, in part because of her association with “The Squad,” a group of progressive freshman Congresswomen of color. And for many, her resilience and courage is an example.

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, celebrates after her congressional 5th District primary victory on Aug. 14, 2018, in Minneapolis. Omar will be the first woman in U.S. Congress to wear a hijab.(Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via AP)

They fell:

Theodore McCarrick

The D.C. Catholic archbishop was once a giant of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, a cardinal and a power broker who traveled the world on behalf of the Vatican, advocating for human rights and raising lots of money for the church. He was also a spokesman for the sexual abuse crisis of priests and minor children and helped write some of the first policies on handling it. And then, after years of mounting reports of his own misconduct came to light, a church panel found he had sexually abused a teenage altar boy when he was a priest in New York. He resigned from the College of Cardinals in 2018. In February, the Vatican defrocked him after finding him guilty of soliciting sex during confession and committing “sins” with minors and adults. It was the most significant abuse-related punishment given to a former cardinal in modern history.

In this Nov. 14, 2011 file photo, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick prays during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall assembly in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Paige Patterson

Considered the architect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative shift, Patterson rooted out moderates and liberals and made the inerrancy of Scripture and the codification of male and female roles the linchpin of Southern Baptist doctrine. Beloved for his stridency of beliefs as well as his folksy, common-man approach, he seemed destined for the denomination’s pantheon of saints. Then it all came tumbling down in 2018 when he was fired as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after reports surfaced that he ignored female students’ complaints of sexual assault. In 2003, at another seminary, he counseled a woman not to report her rape at the hands of a male student to the police. In 2015, he was heard telling a campus police officer he wanted to meet privately with a female student who alleged rape so he could “break her down.”

Paige Patterson closes his eyes during a special meeting of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees on May 22, 2018. Photo by Adam Covington/SWBTS via Baptist Press

Bill Hybels

He is credited with building the megachurch prototype. Willow Creek Community Church, started in 1975 in the Chicago suburbs, grew to attract 24,000 people on Sundays. Hybels was viewed by fellow evangelicals as a maverick, uniquely gifted at attracting people who previously were not interested in going to church. He went on to found the annual Global Leadership Summit, which attracted speakers such as Colin Powell, Bono and Sheryl Sandberg. But in 2018, he was accused by several women, including co-workers and a congregant, of inappropriate behavior that dated back decades. He resigned, and in the wake of both media and internal investigations, all the church’s elders and Hybels’ successors — Heather Larson and Steve Carter — resigned, too.

Pastor Bill Hybels, the former senior pastor of the 12,000-plus-member Willow Creek Community Church in northwest-suburban Chicago, at American University in Washington on July 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Mark Driscoll

The bad boy of evangelicalism who built a brand around his uber-masculine Neo-Calvinist theology, Driscoll was a rising star among a segment of Christians enamored with his successful appeal to men. He had a brash style and a foul mouth and talked unapologetically about sex and sin. His Mars Hill Church with its headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, grew to include 15 campuses in five Western states. But in 2014, he stepped down when a church board found Driscoll had “been guilty of arrogance,” “a quick temper” and “harsh speech” and of leading staff and elders in a “domineering manner.” He was also accused of plagiarism and misusing church funds to promote his book onto the bestsellers list. He has since founded The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Pastor Mark Driscoll. Photo courtesy of Mars Hill Church

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

His father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, built the Boulder (Colorado) Shambhala Center, the first in a network of Buddhist meditation centers that number more than 200 in 30 countries. The son took the name Sakyong, a Tibetan word that roughly translates as king. His students took lifelong vows to follow him. He raised money for the centers and embraced running, completing the New York City Marathon in 2005 in 3 hours 26 minutes. Then in 2018, a former Shambhala teacher released a report alleging that Sakyong had sexually abused and exploited female followers for years. One woman alleged he locked her in a bathroom and forcibly groped her at a party in Chile in 2002. The governing council of Shambhala International resigned, and Sakyong stepped down. He is far from the only Buddhist leader in the West accused of sexual misconduct, showing that no faith is immune to the #MeToo scandal.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2005. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Rob Bell

He was once considered “the next Billy Graham,” a Wheaton College grad with blond hair, youthful looks and a calm, measured tone. In 1999, he founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, and it grew to become one of the most successful megachurches in the U.S. Then came his 2011 breakaway bestseller, “Love Wins,” which appeared to question the concept of hell. He was quickly branded ‘the biggest heretic in America’ by evangelical gatekeepers, even as Time magazine featured him as one of their 100 most influential people in 2011. The following year, Bell left the church and moved to Los Angeles. He has since appeared on several Oprah Winfrey programs, taken a residency at the Largo comedy club in L.A. and published four books. He launched the “Bible Belt Tour” to promote his 2017 book, “What Is the Bible?” More recently, he has offered workshops on communication skills at the Hollywood Improv Comedy Club. He continues his popular podcast, the RobCast. A 2018 documentary following Bell’s life and work, The Heretic, described him as “one of the most polarizing figures in modern day Christianity.”

Pastor Rob Bell on the set of “The Rob Bell Show.” Photo courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!