Obama's year: Cairo or Notre Dame?

I rarely disagree with the results of the Religion Newswriters Association poll that selects the year's Top 10 stories on the religion-news beat. But not this year. This time around, my ballot looked nothing like the final list. Click here to see the press release announcing the results.

Before we get to my choice for the year's top religion story and why I picked it, here's the top of my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week -- which offers my take on the RNA results. I'll give you the rest of the list later in this post.

President Barack Obama deserved the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, said the Norwegian Nobel Committee, because his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen ... cooperation between peoples" had created a "new climate in international politics."

Even Obama's fiercest admirers admitted that his best work for peace occurred at lecture podiums, where the new president offered more of the soaring, idealistic words that helped him rise to power. Nobel judges, in particular, had to be thinking about his June 4 address at Cairo University, in which he promised an era of improved relations between America and the Muslim world.

It's crucial, he said, for Americans and Muslims to realize that their cultures "overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Muslims and Americans must, for example, find ways to work together to defend religious liberty.

"People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart and soul," he said. "This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive. ... The richness of religious diversity must be upheld -- whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. ... Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together."

The Cairo speech -- which included quotes from the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud -- was the year's most important religion story, according to a poll of mainstream reporters who cover religion news. The role of Obama's liberal Christian faith in the White House race topped the 2008 Religion Newswriters Association poll.

The problem, for me at least, is that the Cairo speech was, well, just a speech. Ask the Copts how things are going on the ground.

I know that the Cairo event it was terribly symbolic, but the content of the speech was not linked to other concrete initiatives during the year. In particular, it was a mixed year on the global human-rights front, especially in terms of U.S. actions on religious liberty. I mean, why did the president decline to meet with the Dalai Lama? That was the rare event that worried activists in Hollywood and at Focus on the Family.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's crucial for the White House to take steps to defend religious minorities and moderate Muslims who want to extend basic human rights to other believers who live in Muslim nations. That's a vital issue. But were the lofty words in Cairo connected to concrete actions that were reported in the mainstream press?

Meanwhile, researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released some sobering information toward the end of the year that was, in many ways, directly linked to the Cairo speech. The "Global Restrictions on Religion" study found that citizens in a third of all nations -- nations representing 70 percent of the world's population -- are not able to practice their religion freely, due to government policies or hostile actions taken by individuals or groups.

Where did religious minorities face the worst restrictions? That would be Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and India. Where did religious minorities enjoy the most freedom? That would be the United States, Brazil, Japan, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Clearly the tensions inside Islam over religious liberty issues are not going to disappear soon.

I thought the Cairo speech was important, and had it ranked No. 6 on my ballot. The story that I ranked No. 1 -- President Obama's honorary degree at Notre Dame -- ended up slotted at No. 6 in the RNA results.

Why did I think the Notre Dame event was more important than the Cairo event? Because the issues raised at Notre Dame are directly linked to what I saw as the biggest story of the year, which was the growing tensions between liberal Catholics in the Obama administration and many, but not all, of the leadership and staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

ObamaNotreDameThe president continues to work with progressive Catholics to redefine what it means to be a Catholic in American life, especially in terms of issues linked to the sanctity of human life. This affected all kinds of issues this year, especially linked to health care. The event at Notre Dame, on many levels, was the health-care story with striking visuals and the symbolic power linked to that old cliche -- location, location, location.

Here is my take on the rest of the RNA top 10 list.

(2) Faith groups were at the center of debates over health-care reform, which was the hottest topic in Congress for most of the year. The U.S. Catholic bishops consistently opposed the use of tax dollars to fund abortions, thus clashing with other religious groups that supporting an expanded government role.

(3) The role of radical forms of Islam in terrorism hit the news once again, due to the disturbing history of statements and actions of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the massacre of 13 people, including a pregnant woman, at Fort Hood.

(4) George Tiller, an outspoken specialist in performing late-term abortions, was shot while ushering at his Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Wichita. The antigovernment radical charged with the murder, Scott Roeder, had in the past supported the views of writers who argue -- see ArmyofGod.com -- that violence against abortionists is morally justified.

(5) Mormons in California were attacked by some gay-rights supporters due to their lobbying efforts on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Anti-Mormon protests led to vandalism at some Mormon buildings.

(6) President Obama was granted an honorary degree in law from the University of Notre Dame, despite protests that this violated a U.S. bishops policy urging Catholic institutions not to honor those who openly oppose church teachings on the sanctity of human life.

(7) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to ordain gay and lesbian pastors who live in faithful, committed, monogamous relationships, leading some congregations to start preparations to form a new denomination.

(8) The national recession forced budget cuts at a wide variety of faith-related groups -- houses of worship, publishing houses, relief agencies, colleges and seminaries.

(9) Leaders of the Episcopal Church voted to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury and many other leaders in the global Anglican Communion. The Diocese of Los Angeles then elected a lesbian as a new assistant bishop.

(10) President Obama's inauguration rites included a controversial invocation by the Rev. Rick Warren, a controversial benediction by the Rev. Joseph Lowery and, at a celebration beforehand, a prayer by New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay, noncelibate bishop.

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