Reviewing and previewing religion in fractured times

It may not come as a surprise that the religious trends emerging in 2019 reflected many of the divides that mark society—from denominational schisms to new political-religious fractures. Yet some developments stemmed from actors and actions existing apart from political dynamics, even if they will carry considerable social impact. In this year’s review and preview of trends in religion, we will put the accent on the latter, particularly because our new publishing schedule brings our issue to readers already into the new year of 2020. As usual, we cite the issues of RW and other sources where these trends were reported.

1) The editorial in the mainstream evangelical Christianity Today magazine calling for the removal of President Donald Trump and criticizing fellow evangelicals for their loyalty to the president was given wide media coverage. For those unfamiliar with the diversity of American evangelicals, the editorial may have driven that point home. But it was the response and controversy surrounding the editorial that was more revealing about the new political configurations of conservative Christians. The responding “open letter” critical of the editorial was signed by a group of Christian leaders who are not well-known (largely Pentecostals and Baptists) and stood in relief from the prominent evangelical names defending the CT editorial. The way that Trump’s evangelical supporters are not only populists in relation to political elites but also to evangelical elites was illuminated by the episode and will likely be spelled out more clearly in this election year.

2) The division in the Catholic Church over the leadership of Pope Francis has existed for several years. But last year’s Amazon Synod where the issue of clerical celibacy was broached, as well as the more recent case involving Pope emeritus Benedict XIV’s voicing his strong support of priestly celibacy in a co-authored book (though Benedict retracted his co-authorship) has turned up the volume on charges of liberalization, even heresy, from the Catholic right. Added to that is new determination to pursue the cause of women deacons among liberal groups (encouraged by the consultation on the issue convened by the pope himself) and the more defiant tone of German Catholic leaders and activists to pursue such issues as communion for remarried divorced. These events and developments may not suggest Catholic schism as much as uncertainty and confusion about the church’s direction. (RW, Vol. 34, No. 4)

3) The impending schism in the United Methodist Church has been a long time coming, but the adoption of a “traditional” policy concerning ordination of LGBT individuals and same-sex marriage last year made it all but certain that this slow motion, defacto schism on these issues would become a reality. The announcement last month that conservatives and progressives would part ways in the form of a new denomination made up of “traditionalists” would seem to settle the matter. But it all may unravel as the May General Conference approaches, since it is not clear how resources would be allocated fairly in such a connectional, centralized church body where its bureaucracy has long been dominated by the progressive party. (RW 34:5)

4) The hardening of China’s religious policy was on full view in 2019, especially in media revelations about the detention and brutal treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. That such a crackdown against religion will intensify and broaden is suggested by new administrative measures set to be implemented in February that stipulate that religious organizations promote the Communist Party and its ideology in its teachings. (RW 34:4; also see BitterWinter:

5) The growth and visibility of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 and into the new year is part of an uptick in hate crimes against religious minorities in the U.S., although its source is far from clear. On one hand, while these anti-Semitic incidents, such as those that took place in the New York area, target definite Jewish symbols and often observant orthodox Jews themselves, it is difficult to track down a specific source beyond individual hatreds and resentments. On the other hand, “lone wolf” terrorism—whether from Islamic extremism or far-right sources—has been shown to not be not as solitary as first thought, as such violent acts and actors are often linked to online networks and other forms of support. This was revealed last year in the finding that the perpetrator of the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh was part of a far-right network.

6) The dispute between the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Constantinople) and the Moscow Patriarchate regarding autocephaly granted to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has not abated. The Patriarchate of Alexandria, as well as a majority of the Greek Orthodox Church, have now joined Constantinople in recognizing the new autocephalous church. Which other churches might follow remains unclear. In Ukraine itself, Orthodoxy remains divided, with a few hundred parishes under the Moscow Patriarchate having joined—more or less willingly—those already under the autocephalous OCU. Behind the Ukrainian controversy, the key issue, also decisive for the future shape of Orthodoxy around the world, centers around the role played by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the global communion of Orthodox churches. (RW 34:9)