Rewinding and forwarding on 2017 religion

Reviewing religion in 2017 by looking at the few key words and phrases that served as flashpoints in the media—populism, immigration, racial divides, and evangelicals and President Donald Trump—ignores the fact that many of these developments had taken shape well before last year. Religion in 2017 revealed other trends that were just unfolding and may become more visible in the upcoming year and beyond. As in past annual reviews, we cite the issue of RW (and other sources) where these subjects were covered in greater depth during the past year

1) The Islamic State’s failure to create an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East seemed certain by the end of 2017, but the extremist Islamic group will likely maintain itself virtually. The use of the Internet to recruit new jihadists and spread propaganda may also serve to give the movement a second wind in attempting to create its own state, or at least create a new offshoot that may do so (just as Al Qaeda gave birth to the IS).

2) The relation of evangelicals to the Trump presidency rated as the most popular religious news story last year. Many dimensions of this story were visible during the 2016 primary race, such as the large evangelical support for the candidate despite the ethical questions surrounding him. But Trump’s election by a majority of evangelicals and their continuing support of his policies—and the related campaign and moral issues surrounding Alabama’s Roy Moore—has intensified questions of evangelical “ownership” of an unpopular presidency and the fallout among non-evangelicals and younger evangelicals who are critical of his administration. The Trump administration’s overtures to the religious right, such as the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the endorsement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, suggests a long-term alliance that will likely shape the results of this year’s mid-term elections.

3) The growing coalition between American conservative Christians (not just evangelicals) and their counterparts in Eastern Europe and Russia also became recognizable in 2017. Although such an alliance is buttressed by admiration for Vladimir Putin and his friendliness toward “traditional values” and for the Trump administration, the connections with conservative groups and parties in Hungary and Poland should not be overlooked in the year ahead (see this issue’s article on the movement against Christian persecution in the Middle East for more on the Hungarian connection). (November RW)

4) The rebirth of the religious left was another theme that reverberated throughout 2017. The Trump presidency has ignited liberal and radical protests and alternatives that encompassed religious activists and organizations on such issues as immigration, poverty, and gender equality. But it is difficult to assess the strength of these initiatives since they are targeted toward a declining base in mainline and liberal Catholic churches. Even if the progressive message resonates with a growing number of younger voters and activists, congregations and other organizations have to make the case to the non-affiliated that the faith component is an important part in such activism. In the case of the sanctuary movement, religious congregations have a unique function in ministry to illegal immigrants because of their legal exemptions, but even here it remains to be seen if this movement will expand beyond a small network of congregations.

5) The murder of 25 worshipers in a Baptist church in Texas last year was potentially a sign of the new vulnerability of congregations to the violence that has been felt throughout much of American society. It is uncertain whether this means that houses of worship that were once considered off-limits to certain kinds of violence are no longer immune from such acts. But studies have suggested that the rate of violence is increasing, whether as a result of hate crimes or theft and other criminal motivations. The Texas incident has led to growing interest in providing greater security for worshipers. (December RW)

6) In the context of increasing Saudi-Iranian geopolitical competition and the wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as the new, more assertive leadership in Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-Shia rivalry might intensify in 2018. The international ambitions of Iran after the 1979 revolution and the growth of more or less militant forms of Salafism over the past decades have contributed to such a situation. This may be exacerbated by President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May, when he seemed to give the Saudis carte blanche for going full speed against Iranian interests.

7) Lastly, although not a new trend, we should note that the Catholic Charismatic Movement turned 50 last year. From its modest start at a prayer retreat at Duquesne University in 1967, it has grown into an influential component of modern Catholicism and remains vibrant in some areas of the world. In the turbulent times the Catholic Church went through immediately after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI gave an official welcome to the movement when describing it on Pentecost 1975 as a “great chance” for the church. Its contribution both to reinvigorating segments of Catholicism and to creating bridges with other Christians on the basis of shared spiritual experiences should also be kept in mind. Tellingly, the festival celebrating the anniversary in Rome on Pentecost 2017 “included several non-Catholic leaders, most notably Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Anglicans, non-denominational Christians and even Messianic Jews, who were not just guests but were showcased in a few of the events and were on stage for the conclusion…” (“On 50th anniversary of Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Francis focuses on ‘reconciled diversity,’” The Catholic World Report, June 5, 2017,