Undercover-ed Religion: 13 Stories That Went Missing in 2012

Storm and flood, bad bishops, nones on the bus, vegan leather queens, Gods mom: in this list Peter Laarman plots the angles that were largely invisible in mainstream religion coverage this past year—and likely in our own. A road map for 2013—and a sign to us that there might be more important things to focus on this year than the launch of our signature fragrance, RDs Apocalypse-Begone (subtle notes of ash, hints of ocean breeze, a wisp of sulphur…).  –The Eds.

1. Maya Sham-a-You

Old Harold Camping has nothing on the mysterious Maya, whose civilization flourished and then went kaput in Mesoamerica long before Europeans showed up. This month’s Harper’s includes an amusing Tom Frank riff on the passion of the many pseudo-scholars who cannot abide having the Mayan calendar’s so-called Long Count ridiculed. Frank finds Maya-centered “end-times populism” distasteful.

We might find more distasteful the mainstream mockery of the apocalypticists. Are writers/pundits not interested in exploring the deeper sources of widespread yearning for a time when “time shall be no more”? And would someone please notice the ironic dimension: while many 21st-century cosmopolites fix their eyes on the ancient doomsday calendar, few seem bothered by the fact that rapid climate change appears to be what caused the Mayan collapse—1,200 years ahead of time. 

2. Together at Last in Hurricane Alley?

Even if it didn’t make much of a dent in climate-change denialism (we still don’t know whether it did), Big Sandy certainly got people thinking about what it means to have neighbors who act like neighbors and what it is to be interdependent.

The storm came too late to lower most voters’ already-low views of Romney, whose well-provided houses never blow down or flood. But Chris Christie’s warm endorsement of the federal government’s swift and effective response to Sandy provides a tell-tale sign that the Age of Extreme Atomism may finally have peaked.

3. Still No Moral Critique of Overclass Beastliness

Suppose for argument’s sake that the response to Sandy and Obama’s reelection does indeed signal a growing recognition that “public” is not always a dirty word. That’s still a long, long way from anything like a scorching critique, a religiously-powerful critique, of the deeply antisocial behavior of hedge fund moguls and other one-percenters who have the effrontery to call themselves “job creators” in order to justify their resistance to paying a fair share of taxes.

It’s bothersome that the closest thing we have to a moral critique of these slugs comes from economists like Krugman and Stiglitz and Madrick. Where are our prophetic preachers, our denominational leaders, on this basic question: What kind of country taxes dividends and capital gains so much more favorably than earned income? Clue: it couldn’t be a very godly one.  

4. Bishops Baffled by Bizarre “Economic” Statement

In relation to that missing religious critique: If it weren’t for good old Religion News Service we wouldn’t know, would we, that four years into a brutal recession triggered by greed at the top, our U.S. Roman Catholic bishops just blew off a major opportunity to reaffirm important Catholic social justice teachings?

In June, the bishops asked for a special committee to create a brief clear statement, presumably one built upon the powerful statements of past years, like 1986’s remarkable “Economic Justice for All.” But when they got to Baltimore in mid-November, the bishops were treated instead to a lengthy hash that made no reference to tax fairness, cuts to the safety net, and corruption in the financial sector. The statement did, however, refer repeatedly to the Church’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion and its support for school vouchers. The statement, called “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Times,” thereupon failed to muster the required 2/3 vote for adoption.

Older social justice bishops carped openly about the document’s weird mushiness. Ominously, however, conservative younger bishops cited a different reason for wanting to kill the statement: like good Republicans, these younger princes of the Church increasingly reject Catholic social justice thinking: they believe that the Church should support private charity, and that bishops should restrict their statements to “matters of faith.”

5. “Nones” on the Bus

For all the ink spilled on the good sisters who went out and barnstormed for social-justice Catholicism, almost no one besides hardcore religion junkies like RD’s Katherine Stewart paid much serious mind to the astonishing rise of the “nones”: the mostly younger Americans with no religious affiliation.

Most in this cohort are not aggressively hostile to religion à la Chris Hitchens, but its members sure as heck don’t want religion getting into their personal business via legislation or government policy. Add to these “nones” the increasing number of Americans who do self-identify as religious but who decline to vote the way certain popinjay enforcers would have them vote—who vote instead on bread-and-butter issues—and you have a pretty significant sea-change from the last few election cycles. One can imagine the used-car business is looking better and better to the likes of Ralph Reed.

6. Righteously Minded

Note to self: find out whether Spielberg/Kushner are correct about how Mr. Lincoln pronounced the word “righteous” in his Second Inaugural.

Meanwhile, take note of the way scholar Jonathan Haidt’s “righteous mind” meme has swept all before it in popular discourse. There’s a variant of the same basic idea in Chris Mooney’s Republican Brain. Both writers wish us to know that America is no immediate danger of slipping into an “anything goes” ethos: we will have no shortage of people who insist on the difference between right and wrong for a long time to come (and Mooney thinks we’ll have no shortage of reality-challenged GOP voters). Haidt believes that righteous-mindedness can also be used to serve progressive purposes, which seems to be what is happening in relation to our next two items.

7. Religious Rooting for The Love That Won’t Shut Up

What began as a trickle of righteous support for LGBT acceptance descended as a mighty rolling stream this past year, as Americans in four geographically diverse states voted for equality (against an anti-gay amendment in the case of Minnesota), and as voters in a fifth state (Iowa) rejected “Christian” pleas to recall a state supreme court justice who had supported marriage equality there.

Many pundits take it for granted that popular media have had everything to do with normalizing gay people and gay relationships, thus cutting hostility levels. Call this the “Glee” hypothesis. A more suggestive hypothesis: the way religion played in California’s Prop. 8 galvanized a significant and strategic religious effort on the pro-queer side. Pollster/strategy consultant Amy Simon went before large numbers of liberal Christian leaders in battleground states to say, in effect, “Please don’t duck what your own religion has to say about this. Try behaving like Jesus for once.” And Simon was only one of many out there, working hard and bringing in sheaves of religious voters for equal rights. It seems to have worked.

8. Body of this Death

It wasn’t just gay bodies that got a religious boost in 2012. The bodies of those tortured and incarcerated became an increasingly important preoccupation of religious communities. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) began to focus on domestic solitary confinement as a form of torture.

And just after Thanksgiving NRCAT leaders met with President Obama to urge him to sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, a measure that would open our domestic prisons, jails, and immigrant detention facilities to increased international human rights scrutiny. Even if the president should sign the protocol, there will still be a long road to U.S. ratification. But his signature would mark a huge first step. 

9. Sex Tourism of the Christian Right

The clever tag is Jeff Sharlet’s, not mine. Our Christian theocrats may have taken a licking at the polls here at home, but they remain remarkably successful in taking their pelvic politics overseas via international “mission” activities.

Rev. Albert Ogle enjoys a bird’s-eye view of this from his perch at a small foundation that tries to defend and empower gay people internationally. Big-time Christian agencies like World Vision and big-name evangelicals like Rick Warren have been moderating their homophobia on these shores, but they wear a very different face in the Global South.

This raises an interesting tax policy question, inasmuch as tax-favored nonprofits engage in activities that directly contravene the stated U.S. foreign policy goal of supporting LGBT rights. It also exposes the fallacy of the widespread assumption that militant homophobia in Africa, Asia, and Latin America merely expresses the “traditional values” of those cultures. In fact, much of the new anti-gay ugliness carries a Made-in-the-USA label.

10. Eschewing Animal Products: More Proof That Gay Is Good?

The growing popularity of veganism among queer people is seen by many queers themselves as something of a joke (will it provoke pushback from bitter old leather queens?), but we might also take it as a sign of spiritual awareness and a good kind of gay avant-gardism. When I talk to gay friends about this, they all say the connection is about cruelty and brutality toward animals that are “harvested” or otherwise abused in the industrial food system. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that this extra sensitivity to interspecies cruelty derives from gays’ own exposure to cruelty—but it’s at least an idea worth pondering. 

11. Interfaith Bullying Reaches Its Limit

Ye Olde Mainline Protestants might be evaporating numerically, but they still have some fight left in them. For the first time anyone can recall, they didn’t buckle this year when the Israel Lobby went after them for daring to denounce Israeli policies toward the Palestinians in sharply critical terms.

Fifteen Christian leaders—mainly heads of denominations—wrote an open letter to Congress that described how American taxpayer dollars directly subsidize Israeli human rights abuses. The public denunciations and anguished private pleas from U.S. Jewish leaders came quickly. But instead of caving, the Christian leaders held their ground for a change. They refused what Rabbi Marc Ellis calls “the bargain” that is always available from their erstwhile interfaith partners: i.e., we will absolve you from the taint of two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism on condition that you agree never to criticize the State of Israel.

12. Three-In-One: Revolutionary Concept

Nothing theological is ever really news, unless it’s on account of an archeological discovery like the “Jesus’ wife” papyrus fragment (and note how quickly that one flamed out). In theology change is often more a matter of emphasis. In that regard it does seem worth noting the rising attention that theological liberals now give to one of Christianity’s hoariest doctrines: the concept of a trinitarian God. Not that long ago one could reliably scratch almost any liberal Christian thinker and find a Unitarian. But liberals have lately become entranced by the beauty and mystery of a divinity in which the different “persons” do not just co-exist but exist in and through each other, in which the feminine Sophia shares equal power, and in which the Redeemer (“begotten, not created,” remember?) co-participates in creation.

New Trinitarians are quick to draw ethical implication for marriage equality, radical peacemaking, and ecological consciousness. A prediction for the Next Big Thing in progressive theology: Mary, God’s mom.

13. Cosmic Insignificance: No Warmth in Other Suns

If the Trinitarian preoccupation comes across as a mere piece of human vainglory (“persons,” how charming, but is there a fourth for bridge?), consider Whitehead’s old dictum that all religion boils down to what humans do with their solitariness. That solitariness seems only to be getting more daunting, as astronomy and astrophysics keep discovering wheels within wheels of new galaxies with their multitudinous attendant solar systems.

All that matter, but how much of it really matters? Against this chilly cosmic tableau, the reality of our human being either becomes infinitely meaningless or infinitely wonderful and precious. Serious theology takes the latter view without discounting the claims of the former. Brave enterprise, indeed!