Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything

It was in 1981, while I was doing my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that I had a long conversation with the late George Cornell of the Associated Press about the state of mainstream religion-news reporting. Cornell used to say that he was, basically, the AP religion reporter responsible for all of Planet Earth.

That was, I think, the first time I heard him work his way through a list of the wire service's Top 10 stories of a given year, noting that most of them contained some essential news "hook," or set of facts, linked to religion.

Now, Cornell was not claiming that each of these stories was a "religion" story, per se. He was saying that reporters couldn't understand what was happening in these events and trends without taking the religious angles seriously. He didn't say that these stories were "haunted" by "religion ghosts" -- to use the defining image of this weblog -- but that was basically what he meant. I've been thinking about his words for decades.

I remember that he said there were lots of events that were not, in and of themselves, "religion stories." Take, for example, the Roe v. Wade decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. For most editors, that was a "political story." But how could a reporter cover it without talking to  religious leaders and activists, on both sides? Another example: I wrote my Baylor graduate project about "civil religion" themes in the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Note that those were specific events, with complicated backstories. During this week's long "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I went into "extra innings," so to speak, talking about this year's Top 10 religion stories, according to a poll of members of the Religion News Association. Click here to tune that in.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the No. 1 item, which was different in the RNA list and then in my own. Here is the top RNA item.

1. Conservative evangelicals gain strong representation in the Trump administration, notably with Vice President Mike Pence, and on the president's informal religious advisory body. Trump maintains strong grassroots support among white evangelicals, polls show.

Now, for me, Pence was a 2016 story. So was the strong old-guard Religious Right presence in Donald Trump's political base during the GOP primary season. So what was the "big event" linked to that 2016 story that made it the top individual "story" of 2017?

To be honest, I didn't even have that vague "story" in my list at all. Thus, here is the top of the "On Religion" column that I wrote this past week for the Universal syndicate.

While there was nothing new about someone entering a religious sanctuary and gunning down the faithful, the bloodshed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was truly historic.
Was that 2017’s most important religion story?
What about Myanmar troops forcing half a million Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh, with reports of children being beheaded and people burned alive? What about the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, which turned into #ChurchToo, with women describing soul-wracking private tragedies?
For me, the year’s biggest story took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacist marchers shouted anti-Semitic curses and claimed God was on their side. Meanwhile, clergy prayed and sang hymns in counter-protests. Southern Baptists and other believers proclaimed the alt-right was working for Satan.
But that wasn’t the top story, either, according to journalists voting in the Religion News Association (RNA) poll for 2017. No, once again this was a year dominated by Donald Trump and armies of evangelicals who, in myriad mainstream news reports, marched in lockstep support behind his political agenda.
Trump was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, after “his inauguration triggered upheaval across a number of religious fronts, among them the role of evangelical support of his administration; fierce debates over Islam, race and religious liberty; the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and executive orders relating to immigration and terrorism,” said the RNA announcement.

For me, the Charlottesville horror story was a single event that combined many essential themes from this painful year. I'm talking about the alt-right, antisemitism, racism, the rising Antifa, Trump's dangerous rhetoric, prophetic words from religious leaders (on left and right) and, yes, the dangerous divisions in American life, with radicals on both sides ripping the fabric of public discourse.

I also had some other stories higher in my list than the RNA voters -- such as the #ChurchToo story and the slaughter in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

By the way, what were the top "secular" stories of 2017, according to the Associated Press? The start of that list looked like this:

1. Sexual misconduct: Scandals involving sexual misdeeds by prominent men are nothing new in America, but there’s never been anything remotely like the deluge of allegations unleashed this year by women who were emboldened to speak out by the accusers who preceded them. Luminaries toppled from their perches included movie magnate Harvey Weinstein, media stars Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, and several celebrity chefs and members of Congress.
2. Trump-First Year: The controversies started on Inauguration Day, with the new president challenged over his claims on the size of the crowd, and persisted throughout the year. Trump’s approval ratings hovered around record-low territory, his base remained fiercely loyal, and his relentless tweeting — often in the early morning hours — provoked a striking mix of outrage, mockery and grateful enthusiasm.
3. Las Vegas mass shooting: A 64-year-old high-stakes video poker player, after amassing an arsenal of weapons, unleashed a barrage of gunfire from a high-rise casino-hotel that killed 58 people and injured hundreds among a crowd attending an open-air concert along the Las Vegas Strip. Weeks after the massacre, questions about the gunman’s motives remained unanswered.

The top two speak for themselves, when you plug them into the RNA list. I guess the point of No. 2 is that Trump existed and made news, so there.

What about Las Vegas? What was that all about? Did gunman Stephen Paddock's rampage have anything to do with religion or even hatred of religion? Well, we still don't know the ultimate "why" in that hellish case of "who, what, when, where, why and how," do we? The fact that we DON'T, is one of the most interesting mysteries of recent decades, as far as I'm concerned. Will there be a "ghost" there?

That might be one of the major stories of 2018.

Also, there's that Masterpiece Cakeshop decision pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, as well. Once again, I said that religious liberty is the big issue to watch in the year ahead. Alas, that's a safe choice.

Enjoy the podcast.

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