Religion plus politics equals 2008

obama_noland_posterOf course, Barack Obama was the top Religion Newsmaker of 2008. Of course, the race for the White House was the top religion-beat story of the year.

The Religion Newswriters Association began producing an annual list of the Top 10 religion news stories about 30 years ago, which is about the time that I joined the organization. I took part in the poll, back when I was on the beat full-time and I have written about it every year for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Here is what I have learned: nine times out of 10, the top story in the world of regular news is also the top story in the world of religion news. So there.

In other words, religion plays a key role in almost all of the important news events that shape our world. That is, of course, the mantra of this here weblog. You cannot understand how the world actually works unless you attempt to understand the role that religion plays in the news. Religion is part of the news that matters.

Thus, Obama had to be the top newsmaker this year. Our nation's latest faith-drenched election year had to be the top religion news story. Duh.

Click here if you want to read the entire RNA press release about this year's poll, including the organization's take on the top 25 events.

Or, if you wish, click here to read my entire Scripps Howard column about the Top 10. Here is a large chunk of my column, including the crucial section where -- taking into account events that happened after the poll was conducted -- I look ahead toward a crucial issue in 2009:

There were so many faith-based issues in play during this election year that America's religion-beat specialists had trouble deciding which of these hot stories was No. 1.

In the end, this was the winning item: "Controversial sermons delivered in recent years by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surface, resulting in pressure on Barack Obama, who eventually withdraws his membership in his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago. Meanwhile, John McCain rejects the endorsements of evangelists John Hagee, a critic of Catholicism, and Rod Parsley."

However, it's important to note that this RNA poll was held before two other stories broke, each demonstrating why it will be hard for the Obama administration to find middle ground in America's wars over religion and public life.

The first was the resignation of National Association of Evangelicals official Richard Cizik, who drew fire when he endorsed civil unions for gays and lesbians and hinted that he was willing to compromise on gay marriage, as well. In an interview with National Public Radio, the veteran lobbyist said: "I'm shifting, I have to admit. I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining traditional marriage, I don't think."

In the end, it was impossible for the association's leaders to ignore those crucial words, "I don't think."

Then, soon after that controversy, Obama was criticized by leaders on the secular and religious left for selecting another high-profile evangelical to give the invocation at his inauguration.

The Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church had also made cautious statements suggesting a willingness to compromise on civil unions. However, Warren drew fierce attacks from gay-rights supporters due to his strong support for California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which defined marriage as the union of husband and wife.

The rest of the RNA top 10 looked like this:

2. Led by Obama's example, Democrats reach out to religious voters. At a crucial stage of the campaign, Obama participates in a debate with John McCain moderated by Warren and held in his megachurch sanctuary. Conservative Christians are given a few moments in the Democratic National Convention spotlight.

3. The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as the GOP vice presidential nominee energizes evangelical activists, who are excited by her defense of unborn children -- both in her personal life and in public policies. Many religious conservatives reluctantly back McCain.

In the next day or so, I will post links to some other takes on religion news in 2008. Use the comments pages here if you want to point us toward some interesting lists online. Go for it.

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