Religious politics and political religion mark 2016

The Chinese curse of “living in interesting times” took on special resonance in 2016 as political upheavals and conflicts as well as actual violence became a reality for many. These tumultuous events reverberated in the world of religion, as will be obvious by our focus on religion and politics for our annual review of 2016 and preview of trends unfolding in 2017. Citations of RW issues where we cover the trends below in greater depth follow each item; we also cite outside sources for trends reported for the first time here.

1) The election of Donald Trump will have numerous implications for religion, some of which are only in their infancy. Despite the abrasive and divisive campaign Trump ran and the way that it divided Republicans, subsequent polls have shown that the religious configurations marking the electorate for the last two decades have not changed much. It is not clear if evangelicals’ and other religious conservatives’ investment in the Trump presidency—with notable dissenters—will revive the religious right and its agenda (see “The religious right’s populist turn,” below), but their worries about secularism and the loss of institutional religious commitment among many Americans will not likely subside even with political support from Washington. Their association with a controversial and potentially unpopular administration may well exacerbate the situation (December RW).

2) A more activated religious left emerged from events in 2016, most notably Trump’s election but also the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests in North Dakota. Trump’s presidency presents the religious left (and center in some cases) with a full menu of causes and concerns—from immigration to interfaith relations and religious freedom to the environment. We will likely hear of a revived sanctuary movement for undocumented immigrants, for instance. The Standing Rock protests brought mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish activists into greater contact with a new generation of American Indians and their spirituality, according to the Washington Post (December 5). There have been reports of higher attendance at mainline churches since the election, but that effect may be temporary according to The Atlantic (December 11). It remains to be seen if the more diminished institutional strength (compared to only a decade ago) of progressive religion can mobilize shrinking constituencies or inspire unchurched Americans to activism on these issues.

3) Last year the Islamic State’s (IS) move to bring its terrorism to the West became clear, as seen in the attacks in France, Germany, and the U.S. At the same time, the IS lost key strongholds in decisive battles, leading analysts to argue that the movement may further target its jihad against “infidels” in the West (September RW; see also “Islamic State’s center of gravity shifts to Yemen?” [p. 9] and “Findings & Footnotes” below).

4) The long-awaited Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church finally took place in Crete last June, but the churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia did not attend, undermining the message of unity that the gathering was supposed to send. The Russian church recognized the Council as an important event but not as a pan-Orthodox one, thus seeing it as part of pre-conciliar preparations and not a Council proper. Due to competing views and competition among Orthodox churches (especially between Constantinople and Moscow), it is unlikely that a genuine pan-Orthodox Council can take place soon. The preparations for the event over many years, however, have brought some fruits. For instance, local Assemblies of Orthodox Bishops of all jurisdictions have been established in several countries where they had not existed before, thus ensuring a start for a better common representation of Orthodox communities in diaspora countries (July RW).

5) After many years of cooperation, the relations between the Turkish government under President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Hizmet movement of Fetullah Gülen first turned sour in 2013. Following several measures taken by the AKP government against educational and other institutions run by the Hizmet movement, the final break came with the failed coup last summer. Gülen and his followers now stand accused of backing the coup, an accusation they deny strongly. Harsh repression has targeted everyone associated with the movement. Gülen’s followers abroad are also feeling the heat, and the movement is denounced in mosques associated with the Turkish government. Due to the presence of Hizmet in different parts of the world (Gülen himself has resided in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s), it remains to be seen how the movement might reinvent itself. According to recent reports, in Germany there is an internal discussion among Gülen’s followers regarding the option of opening their own mosques, something the movement has not done before (Katholische NachrichtenAgentur, December 5).

6) Since Chinese President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, the state’s attitude toward religion seems to have been hardening, not sparing representatives of the state-sponsored “Patriotic” churches (both Catholic and Protestant) in 2016, particularly in those cases when they were not willing to adhere closely to the government’s line. In April, the president warned of foreign infiltration through religion (Reuters, April 24). While the Holy See continues a discrete dialogue with China and showed conciliatory tones before the recent 9th National Assembly of Catholic Representatives (an official body under government control), there was no sign of changes. High officials addressing the Assembly stressed the need for independence of Chinese Catholics from Rome. The news agency Eglises d’Asie (December 29) noted, however, that the Chinese side was careful to act in a way that would not close the path to continuing negotiations. With what is at stake, one can expect such talks to endure until reaching a solution agreeable to both parties.