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Top 10 Religion Stories Impacting Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in 2008
What started as a fluke born partially out of boredom some five years ago has now turned into an annual tradition. Folks have been asking me right and left if I plan on continuing my annual list of the top-ten religion stories from an evangelical and fundamentalist perspective this year. The answer is yes. However, before I give my thoughts, a couple of caveats and words of explanation.
First, I sometimes do two lists—one for evangelicals and one for fundamentalist Christians (for the record, many fundamentalists do not like being called “evangelicals” and vice versa, though from a secular perspective, they are pretty much the same basic demographic group). This year, I’ll be back to one list combining stories of interest for both branches. Frankly, there just weren’t that many “big” stories from either camp this year.
Also, I offer my personal perspective on why I think these stories are significant. You might disagree. If you do so, feel free to comment on why you see things differently.
So, with further introduction, I give you the Whirled Views “Top Ten Religion Stories Impacting Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in 2008.”
The Top 10 Stories Impacting Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in 2008
10. Persecution of Christians in India Escalates
2008 was the year in which believers in India were brazenly attacked while much of the year yawned. Particularly in the area of Orissa, multiple accounts of murders, burnings, beatings, and threats against evangelical and Catholic adherents were reported. While there was some condemnation and outrage expressed, few have pressured their governments to get involved in protecting India’s Christian minority against Hindu and Muslim militants, which have declared “open season” on followers of Christ. Particularly silent on the topic has been the American church.
9. Bob Jones University Apologizes for Racist Policies of the Past
In a stunning admission and public apology, America’s most historically militant fundamentalist university addressed its segregationist past, which included a refusal to admit blacks into its student bodies and an even longer policy that did not permit interracial dating. While Bob Jones III lifted the ban against interracial dating several years ago in the waning years of his presidency, it was left to Stephen Jones—fourth generation of Jones leadership at what is billed as the “World’s Most Unusual University”—to try to address the stigma that has certainly been an unwelcome stain on the reputation of what most would acknowledge as one of the finest institutions of its kind in the area of academic rigor. Many believe that part of the motivation behind the public apology was due to an online petition started by bloggers, alumni, and supporters of the university. University officials have denied that their response was due to the public pressure and went so far as to declare the petition drive “unbiblical” and “unprofitable” in a recent faculty meeting, according to sources who were present. It would appear that Stephen Jones may be working to moderate a strident reputation that has settled over the university in recent decades and has reduced its influence and pool of supporters. In addition to the reversal on interracial dating, the university has also announced that it would seek accreditation for the first time—albeit from a second-tier agency (TRACS). Some are hoping that other changes will follow, including lifting a policy that precludes intercollegiate athletic competitions and a softening of what they see as an extreme position on music, which has caused great division in Fundamentalism and which many alumni, students, and even faculty privately disdain or ignore altogether.
8. Social Activism Re-Emerges in Evangelical Circles
First there was Rick Warren’s PEACE Movement, and in 2008 others joined the trend, including prominent evangelical pastor Joel Hunter of Orlando. Many younger evangelicals are falling in line toward a more social-oriented activism that is reminiscent of the “social gospel” movement of a century ago. Many more conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists caution that providing money, resources, and good works without the gospel to the poor and hurting does little or nothing to advance the kingdom of God or the church. Others would counter that people who are hungry, sick, and hurting are not in a position to receive the gospel because of their plight. This interest in social works among the poor and oppressed may be partially responsible for a small but significant shift toward the Democratic Party among younger and emergent evangelicals in the last election cycle.
7. Enrollment Woes and Problems Plague Colleges
2008 was not a good year for many smaller and private colleges. With the exception of schools like the perennial powerhouse Liberty University, most conservative evangelical and fundamentalist schools were not exempt. In a stunning turn, the historic Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in Owatonna, Minnesota, announced that it would close in December just weeks after installing new president, Greg Huffman. Baptist Bible College in Clark Summit, Pennsylvania, reported a dramatic drop in enrollment in the fall. Atlantic Coast Baptist Bible College announced its closure and the merging of its assets with Piedmont Baptist College. Two of the finest seminaries in the SBC, Southwestern and Southern, have undergone significant budget cuts due to the economic downturn. Tennessee Temple University is aligning with the Tennessee state Southern Baptist association in an effort to forge a working relationship that will bring students and dollars to its campus. Cedarville University is reportedly undergoing internal conflict that is alienating some within its historic base of GARB-aligned churches over the direction that it is charting under President Bill Brown. Several other colleges are offering dramatic tuition discounts and other tactics in order to attract new students. The world economic crisis and problems attaining student loans are also contributing to the difficulty many Christian colleges are having in holding enrollment and in staying in the black financially.
6. Rick Warren Invited to Pray at Obama Inauguration
President-elect Barak Obama asked Saddleback Church mega-pastor Rick Warren to offer the invocation at his historic January inauguration. Warren, who had invited Obama and Republican John McCain to his church earlier last spring, accepted the invitation. Within hours, an outcry rose from the extreme left and homosexual activists who didn’t appreciate this kind of “change” from Obama. They cited Warren’s public opposition to Amendment 8, which narrowly passed in California and which prevents the state from granting the privilege of marriage to same-sex couples. At this date, Obama has not rescinded the invitation, and it appears that Warren will offer the opening prayer.
5. Rick Warren Invites Presidential Candidates to Saddleback Church
Indicative of his growing standing as—what Fox News Channel describes—“America’s Pastor,” Saddleback pastor Rick Warren arranged a public forum featuring presidential candidates Barak Obama and John McCain. It was telecast multiple times and was most noted for a controversial statement Obama made regarding when he thought life began. He replied that the answer was “above his pay grade.” In contrast, McCain quickly answered, “At conception.” Warren received kudos from many in the media for his breadth in inviting both candidates to a national evangelical forum. It should be noted that the company that prints and promotes his books, including mega-best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, is also owned by the same conglomerate headed by Rupert Murdoch that owns Fox News, Fox Broadcasting, the Fox Business Channel, and many other media outlets.
4. Mike Huckabee Makes Impressive Run for Republican Nomination
Former Southern Baptist pastor and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee made an impressive run for the Republican nomination for president. Other candidates predicted to do well, such as Rudolph Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney, quickly faded before the growing momentum of John McCain. Huckabee used a combination of oratorical skills, homespun wit and humor, and a populist message to attract a conservative evangelical base that did not trust McCain and become at least a nuisance to the presumed nominee. Huckabee now hosts his own show on the Fox News Channel. Many think he may be positioning himself for another run in 2012.
3. Christian Conservatives Lead the Charge Against Gay Marriage in Florida and California
California, Florida, and Arizona had constitutional measures on the ballot that would protect the traditional definition of marriage and which would refuse to acknowledge homosexual unions as marriage equivalents. California saw a substantial effort by Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups to narrowly pass Proposition 8. In Florida, the challenge was greater, since constitutional amendments require a 60 percent approval margin and most polls showed it with only 55 percent. A state-wide blitz was begun by Jacksonville independent Baptist pastor Tom Messer and influential Orlando Southern Baptist pastor Clayton Cloer. The blitz was joined by the Florida Family Council and an attorney from Liberty University who helped write the amendment. Largely due to their efforts to activate the grassroots, the amendment passed with 62 percent of the vote—in a state that voted for Obama. The amendment also passed in Arizona. The California proposition has invited protests, legal challenges, and acts of disruption with churches and Mormon congregations.
2. Evangelicals and the Election—Have They Lost their Clout?
Some in the media (not to mention the Republican Party) have written the obituary of the “Religious Right” after an election that led to the loss of the White House and significant gains in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. What many in the Republican Party seem to have missed was the on-going lack of enthusiasm many evangelicals had for John McCain, who had previously attacked the religious right and never seemed comfortable with them while making some tepid efforts to earn their support. His most dramatic overture may have been the selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. This decision unleashed a tidal wave of enthusiastic support for her rather than for him. The Democrats made overtures to evangelicals, and it was not uncommon to see younger evangelicals wearing Obama gear at Christian concerts and conferences popular with young people, like the annual “Passion” conference. Most polls show that a small margin of self-described evangelicals voted for Obama, but the vast majority still voted Republican. Yet a lack of enthusiasm for the top of the ticket was undeniable, and even major players like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and the Falwell Family were notably low-key during this presidential election; they seemed to support McCain while resenting having to do so. The question that remains is whether the Republicans will continue their drift to a warmed-over “moderate” liberalism that gives lip service to social issues and seems bent on becoming a lighter and wealthier version of the Democrat Party. Or will an internal revolution re-emphasize the themes of conservative social values, smaller government, and lower taxes that made the Republican Revolution of the ’80s and ’90s a reality? Many younger evangelicals seem largely apathetic about politics in general, and the fundamentalists who gave rise to the so-called Moral Majority have largely disappeared into irrelevance.
1. Two Words: Sarah Palin
Love her or hate her, few people felt neutral about Sarah Palin. Coming out of nowhere, this evangelical Christian, straight-talking daughter of Alaska, the mother of a Downs Syndrome child and one unafraid to go at the jugular of liberals, became a celebrity of rock star proportions after her speech at the Republican National Convention electrified the hall. Minus the Palin portion of the McCain-Palin ticket, the election was over in September. Palin at least made the race interesting. One only needed to attend a Republican rally to observe that more people were there to see her than to see the old soldier from Arizona. What was unprecedented in American politics, however, was not the fact that she was a woman, a governor of Alaska, or a citizen from a small town. It was the level of vitriol and hatred that was blasted at her from virtually every circle. The power elite of the Republicans (Peggy Noonan, for example) sniffed at her credentials. The media of the mainstream variety launched stunning investigations into her private life. Included in the circus was the successful hacking of her private e-mail by the son of a Tennessee Democratic office holder. The Hollywood elite became positively venomous and showed a stunning level of “intolerance”; they would normally have been preaching if the roles were reversed. The discovery that Palin’s daughter was pregnant out of wedlock was greeted with cheers of delight, masked as outrage, among those who were looking for a flaw in her character and values. Some Christians were conflicted with the thought that the young mother of five was seeking high office when her children needed her most. Her church, prayers, faith, and values were subject to a near witch hunt of research in an effort to discredit her. Another example of hatred was demonstrated when an arsonist set her home church, the Wasilla Bible Church, on fire while people were still present in the building. Yet Palin responded with grace, smiles, and a ferocity for defending her positions. She, in my opinion, was the biggest story about an evangelical of the year.
Several “honorable mentions” that did not make the Top Ten include the following:
- A movie flop about Billy Graham
- A successful movie about marriage—Fireproof
- The death of Stephen Curtis Chapman’s daughter in a tragic accident
- The death of Greg Laurie’s son in a tragic accident
- The “coming out” of Ray Boltz
- Johnny Hunt’s being elected to be presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention
- Historic Highland Park Baptist Church’s realignment with the Southern Baptist Convention after over fifty years
- The Anglican Church in America splitting over the ordination of gay priests and a new conservative (evangelical leaning) group of Anglican’s start in the United States.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few newsworthy items, and I’d love for you to post your thoughts in the comments section. Debate, argue, add, criticize—that’s half the fun! So until next year …
|Dan Burrell is the executive pastor of New Testament Baptist Church and vice president of Dade Christian Schools in Miami, Florida. He is also the site director of the South Florida campus of Davis College and serves as an adjunct professor for Liberty University and Boston Baptist College. His blog is “Whirled Views” at www.danburrell.com. He has been married for nearly 25 years and has four children ranging in age from 20 to 11.|