Crises and reinvention mark religion in 2020

RW’s previous annual reviews of religion often left the editors stymied over whether the developments that we spotted could really be traced to the year in question. For better and worse, that dilemma doesn’t apply to 2020. Almost from the beginning of this momentous year, we entered a vortex of crises and events that will likely shape contemporary religion for several years to come. It is difficult to confine the coronavirus pandemic to one entry since it has impacted so many different aspects of religious life. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the 2020 elections and the Black Lives Matter protests, as their impact spilled over into other areas. We cite other trends that unfolded last year, as well as including sources other than RW in order to incorporate our regular reporting on related developments into this extended review.












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1) From the first outbreak of the coronavirus, its interaction with religious communities and institutions has been clear, whether the subject was concerns about religious gatherings serving as super-spreader events or the need to maintain connections with quarantining and socially distanced members. Each religious adaptation to Covid-19 has been singular, carrying its own issues depending on the respective tradition (as suggested by our over 30 articles since March on just this subject alone). It seems likely that, even as the virus becomes less of threat, the numerous experiments with online worship and services will result in long-term changes in how congregations and larger religious institutions interact with their members with hybrid online expressions and home-based rituals (virtual celebrations of communion bringing these two trends together) becoming more popular—as well as stoking continued debates.

2) The management of the Covid-19 pandemic by governments has led to serious restrictions on the exercise of religion around the world, resulting either in the banning of public worship or limitations on the number of faithful allowed to attend. In some cases, state interventions have gone further in attempting to define acceptable religious practices. In an article in La Croix International (Dec. 1), Loup Besmond de Senneville remarks that “what worries Rome is not so much the closure of churches for health reasons, but rather government interference in how worship services are organized.” In December RW attended an online conference on “The Covid-19 Pandemic and Religious Freedom: Reports from North America and Europe,” organized by the Religious Liberty and Covid-19 Research Project at Andrews University. It was pointed out that while most religious groups rapidly complied with state measures during the initial period of the pandemic, criticism emerged over time, raising issues related to the proportionality of the measures and comparing them with those affecting some secular activities. Either religious organizations themselves or subgroups and individuals went to court in several countries, sometimes resulting in state measures being revised. Moreover, Andreas Jacobs of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation has observed that the Covid-19 crisis has presented an opportunity for testing relations between states and religious bodies around the world (EZW-Texte, Issue 268). Thus the pandemic might not merely contribute to the shaping of various developments within religions, but also their place and rights within contemporary societies.

3) The pandemic might have the effect of speeding the decrease in church attendance already underway in a number of areas of the world. In an article published in Foreign Affairs (September/October), Ronald F. Inglehart reported a decline in religion since 2007 in 43 out of a panel of 49 countries he analyzed. Moreover, the rise of the non-affiliated, or “nones,” has been stressed by a number of scholars in recent years, as it was in October 2019 when Pew Research released a report on the continuing decline of Christianity at a rapid pace. However, articles on Generation Z by Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge, and by Melissa Deckman, published in Religion in Public (February 10), suggested that the nones’ rate of growth might be slowing in the U.S.—although the authors acknowledged that this remains to be confirmed since the age cohort under consideration was quite young.

4) The religious right has had a checkered history of perceived decline and unexpected revival in its 40 years of existence, but it may be facing its most serious challenge as it seeks to navigate the post-Trump era, an era where it found both support from government and derision and criticism from the liberal (and in some cases conservative) public and other religious groups. The last year of campaigns and protests suggests that the populist turn among religious conservatives will outlast Donald Trump. Over the past four years, religious conservative support for Trump and populism evolved from a mainly transactional relationship, where political support was exchanged for Trump’s support of the pro-life cause and religious freedom, to a more full-throated populist and Trumpian thrust. This could most recently be seen in the protests against the presidential vote and particularly in such events as the Jericho March, as a segment of conservative Christians framed the results of the election in terms of a fight between good and evil. As Julia Duin reports on the website Get Religion (December 15), the Washington event had a definite charismatic component (and charismatics and Pentecostals have been among Trump’s strongest supporters), with marchers claiming that they had received prophecies of Trump’s victory and continued presidency. Duin and others have noted that such supporters represent a new split in Christian conservative ranks. Indeed, conservative Protestant critic Michael Horton, writing on the Gospel Coalition website (December 16), charges that “Christian Trumpism” has become a “cult” and a heresy and is the result of three converging trends: Christian Americanism, end-times conspiracy, and the prosperity gospel. Similar critiques are being made against the Catholic right, personified by Bishop Vigano, who dovetail their protests against the “deep state” with attacks on the “deep church” led by Pope Francis (see Kathryn Joyce’s critique in Vanity Fair, October 30).

5) Aside from questions about the fortunes of the religious right in a gridlocked but Democratic administration, the results of the 2020 elections pose other interesting questions. Contrary to the pre-election polls, voting for Trump and populism held strong, suggesting to some observers an alternative future to the usual forecasts of white Republican decline and a Democratic surge from the support of people of color. Trump picked up a significant number of votes from Latinos and black men (and even more Muslims than he did in 2016), with some commentators suggesting that the future of the Republicans—minus the divisive personality of Trump—may be as a working-class populist party that draws minorities for its socially conservative and pro-religious positions in the face of a secularizing Democratic Party.
(November RW)

6) Related to the above developments associated with Covid-19 and politics is the growth of conspiracy theories in the past year. Although conspiracy theories such as QAnon were around. before 2020, these currents were further fueled by the pandemic and a campaign year’s political fervor, finding a following among religious believers of various shades. The media has widely reported on how evangelical pastors are concerned that their congregants are being drawn to QAnon and its conspiracies of the evil—even Satanic—workings of the “deep state,” but variants of this conspiracy are also evident among “holistic” and alternative spiritual groups. These two conspiratorial wings may be brought together in theories surrounding the Covid-19 vaccines—a key concern for public health officials. (June RW)

7) On the other side of the political spectrum, the protests that broke out over the killing of George Floyd last year seemed at first to represent a broadly based national response over questions of race and policing. But the protests themselves became an issue and opened another front in the culture wars and polarization, rallying calls both for “law and order” and against “white supremacy.” The conflict mirrored long-time divisions between the religious right and left, and an argument can be made that the young “woke” protestors were the forerunners of a new kind of religio-political revival that may receive more affirmation in the Biden administration. As the smoke clears in 2021, there may be less heated incitement and some goodwill remaining among religious leaders and laypeople to address these issues.
(June RW)

8) The Trump administration’s brokering of peace treaties between Israel and the small Muslim nations of Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain may not solve the most pressing Middle Eastern conflicts, but the establishment of new ties between these nations and Israel may assist in helping to defuse decades of Jewish-Islamic conflict. The Spectator magazine (December 17) reports that the new ties with Israel have encouraged Morocco to go. a step further and start teaching Jewish history as part of its school curriculum. “Morocco is now the first modern Arabic state to embrace its tradition of religious pluralism—a pluralism. that has over the decades fallen into monocultural Sunni Islam,” writes Kunwar Khuldane.