Religion in 2021: different key but same melody as 2020

Although religion in 2021 was eventful on several fronts, last year’s trends also reflected shifts that were vividly on display in 2020: a continuation of the pandemic and its wide-ranging effects on religious institutions, the religio-political tensions and polarization leading to the January 6 riots, and the battles over teaching gender and race. But there were other important developments in the international arena that caught observers more by surprise. We do not include the pandemic as a separate trend in this review since it originated in 2020, but it obviously continues to shape religious life, as is evident in our steady coverage of the crisis (including in this issue). As in previous annual reviews, after each item we cite the issue of RW in which the trend was first reported.

1) Through his motu proprio letter, Traditionis Custodes (issued July 16), Pope Francis overturned the 2007 document by his predecessor Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, that had allowed more frequent use of the Latin Mass regularly celebrated before 1970. The new document made it clear that the pope no longer grants the traditional rite the status of an “extraordinary form” of prayer coexisting alongside the modern “ordinary form.” Intending to make the liturgical reforms irreversible, Pope Francis has placed restrictions on the use of the pre-1970 rite and has seemed determined to prevent its spread, considering groups that use it to be hotbeds of opposition to the Second Vatican Council. “The clear intent is to condemn the extraordinary form to extinction in the long run,” said Cardinal Gerhard Müller, whose assessment seems confirmed by the further restrictions announced in a document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (December 4). It remains to be seen how strictly the measures will be implemented across dioceses. It is unlikely that all priests and faithful attached to the old rite will bow to the pope’s demands. (July RW)

2) In Afghanistan, the Taliban came back to power earlier and more completely than expected, raising many questions about the results of 20 years of U.S. and coalition military forces in the country, but also about the impact of the events on Islamism at the international level. According to a commentary released by the International Crisis Group (Oct. 27), Islamist insurgents around the world have been inspired by the Taliban’s return to power, but the question of whether and how they might benefit as a result is more complicated. Al-Qaeda’s local branches function largely autonomously and ISIS affiliates are opposed to the Taliban. In Syria, Hei’at Tahrir al- Sham (HTS) is drawing lessons from the Taliban and feels encouraged by its strategy of political engagement. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sees the victory of the Taliban as a triumph for jihad as a “legal and realistic way to restore rights [and] expel the invaders and occupiers.” In the Horn of Africa, Al-Shabaab insurgents applauded the Taliban victory, but “the ramifications for its own struggle in Somalia are less certain.” And in the Sahel, the events in Afghanistan are “unlikely to have an immediate impact on the conflict between jihadists and state authorities,” although they might raise the morale of jihadists facing counter- insurgencies. (September)

3) Whether considered an “insurrection” or not, the January 6 incident at the U.S. Capitol building highlighted the how a segment of the followers of former President Donald Trump have joined their political grievances to their faiths. Observers have noted the ad hoc and individualistic versions of conservative Christianity (and other faiths and quasi-faiths, including QAnon) that were on display at the riot, but it is more difficult to connect that event and its conspiratorial overtones to broader currents in religion and politics. Just how the Biden administration’s agenda on “domestic terrorism” will handle the religious dimensions of such resistance and protest will be of interest to watchers of church-state relations. In any event, it is clear that the departure of Trump did not weaken the populist-nationalist strand of political conservatism and that this tendency has great appeal for conservative Christians of many stripes (Catholics and Protestants). Contrary to political pundits who seem ready to declare the death of the culture wars, the ongoing challenges to Roe v. Wade, the widespread skirmishes over critical race theory (both in religious and secular institutions), and the unexpected Republican gubernatorial victory in Virginia suggest that a mix of religious populism and activism—from the right and left—will remain a significant force in American politics. (July)

4) The support that many charismatic Christians gave to Trump early on came under fire last year, as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement was forced to face its failures in prophesying his reelection. Many of the prophets in this movement have actually not formally recanted their prophecies or apologized to their followers, but the NAR has nevertheless experienced a crisis of credibility that may take years to rebuild. Already a small segment of prophets have proposed reforms to the practice of prophesying, although it is unclear if they will convince the leaders of the movement. (October)