America remains overwhelmingly religious in a world that is largely growing more religious, with fast growing Christianity increasingly competing for souls with Islam globally, especially in Africa but also Asia. Religion will be a top news maker in 2013 no less than in 2012. Here are some projections of likely stories this year.
New Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will very cautiously lead both the Church of England and the global Anglican Communion in a more orthodox direction. His relative conservatism compared to the erratically brilliant and feckless outgoing Rowan Williams likely won’t fully satisfy U.S. conservatives disgusted by the Episcopal Church’s ossification into a sad caricature. Nor will Welby fully justify liberal fears that he represents an evangelical seizure of England’s established church. The evangelical yuppie London congregation from which he emerged is evangelistic while avoiding hot button issues. But the Church of England’s surprisingly robust resistance to the British government’s same sex marriage agenda, and the growing importance of the Global South dominated Anglican Communion, with over 80 million members, points the new Archbishop almost inexorably in one direction. A former corporate executive, Welby, unlike his egghead, academic predecessor, will mostly be sensible.
In America, liberal evangelicals may themselves sensibly draw back from alignment with the Obama Administration and Democratic coalition building. Ascendant in reaction against the last Bush Administration and its conservative evangelical backers, the Evangelical Left was euphoric over Barack Obama in 2008. But Obamacare’s HHS mandate compelling religious institutions to subsidize contraceptives and abortifacients, with Obama’s support for same sex marriage and abortion rights, has successfully doused much previous liberal evangelical enthusiasm. Plus, Democrats calculated in 2012 they could win without evangelicals, even if they are the largest religious demographic group. Liberal pundits chortled that the Religious Right was now irrelevant. But it is the Evangelical Left that is now mostly homeless politically.
And the old Religious Left, embodied by the once prestigious but now nearly comatose National Council of Churches (NCC), is pleased by the 2012 results but is itself usually ignored even by its friends. The NCC, having ardently chased nearly every liberal cause du jour of the last 45 years, is now reduced to a handful of staffers, a few million in assets, the prospect of closing its historic New York office, and what even a top NCC officer frostily described as an “ecumenical winter.” Brrrrrr, indeed. Oddly, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) wants to join the NCC in the cold by increasingly aligning with it politically. Recently the NAE chief suggested to the New York Times it may now address gun control. Although both NAE and NCC are occasionally useful press conference props for liberal causes, neither truly represents a core constituency. Both founded in the 1940s when such groups were still important, NAE and NCC may not much longer survive in this decade.
NAE has prominently backed Obama’s new push for immigration “reform,” with several purported representatives of Hispanic evangelicals. Many white Anglos, religious or otherwise, like to think that all Hispanics think in sync. But not all legal immigrants necessarily think that all illegals are entitled to the same benefits for which legal immigrants waited long and worked hard. Hispanic evangelical churches are overwhelmingly non-political. But Hispanic evangelicals overall lean more conservative, and look for some to openly dissent from their purported spokesmen. Also look for some Asian evangelicals to question immigration “reform.”
Meanwhile, the almost entirely white, dying old line Protestant denominations have mostly embraced gay liberation. What’s next? Always in the social vanguard, the Episcopal Church officially affirmed transgender clergy in 2012. Cross dressing and sex change operations are gaining both legal and religious protections in some quarters. If sex and gender are amorphous, then who can object? Polyamory is now increasingly touted openly in old line church circles stretching for the next liberation cause. If traditional marriage, which rested on notions of chastity and monogamy, is passé, then why not multiple partners, if transacted with integrity?
Confronting this sort of moral chaos, orthodox Catholics and evangelicals will continue to draw closer together, along with other traditional religionists. Evangelicals who backed Rick Santorum, a Catholic, last year, along with eventual strong traditional Catholic and evangelical support for Mitt Romney, a Mormon, presage growing cultural and political partnerships. Ongoing threats to religious liberty by Obamacare and other big government power grabs will further solidify these once unlikely alliances.
Catholics and evangelicals will sound the alarm against growing global persecution against Christians. And both will facilitate immigration to the U.S. of fleeing persecuted Middle East Christians.
Meanwhile, nondenominational Christianity will keep growing, attracting many of the supposedly religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” who have become so popular of late. Somewhat incongruently, more evangelical elites from thriving nondenominational churches will seek to connect somehow to the intellectual and liturgical heritage of more longstanding Protestant and Catholic traditions.
In short, American religion especially, never static, will continue to churn and vigorously evolve in 2013. And American religiosity will compel America to heed more than otherwise the surging religious currents shaping our world.
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