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​2014 in Review: An Unsettling Year

With Religion in a Starring Role

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BY KEVIN ECKSTROM ©2014 Religion News Service

For most of recorded history, Isis was an Egyptian goddess, a benevolent type who cared for widows and orphans, cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life. This year, the world met the other ISIS.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State, variously known as ISIS or ISIL, dominated headlines in 2014 as a self-proclaimed caliphate sowed death and destruction across Iraq and Syria. For some, the group confirmed their worst fears about Muslim extremists, bent on killing religious minorities and subjugating women in a quest for domination that included leveling villages and beheading hostages.

The terror wrought by the Islamic State reflected a sense of turbulence that upended international news in 2014. But it was not the only source of unrest. The Ebola virus in west Africa put the world on edge, and a bloody war between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria and the slaughter of more than 100 children at a military school in Pakistan added to the mix.

At home, America wrestled with police brutality as grand juries declined to prosecute officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. From botched prison executions to a stream of desperate migrant children flooding America’s southern border, things felt troubled, disorienting, always on the verge of breaking apart.

Religion played a large role in those stories, and in other major headlines from 2014:

A banner year for church-state court decisionsA string of court decisions paved a way for greater accommodation of religion in public life, dealing a blow to atheist groups that warned that the separation of church and state was under attack. In Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sectarian prayers at public meetings, and the justices also ruled 5-4 in favor of the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain in its bid to refuse a full range of contraceptive services to employees. That ruling also established religious rights for private businesses, a precedent that could have a range of ramifications. In addition, atheists lost bids to require religious groups to have greater transparency on donors; to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency; and to end a tax break for clergy housing. A federal appeals court ruled that a cross-shaped relic can remain at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero.

Pope Francis wanted open debate, and he got itPope Francis hosted a headline-grabbing Synod on the Family at the Vatican that publicly pitted Catholic conservatives against his reformist allies who want to open Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics as well as create more space for LGBT Catholics and their families. In an unusually public debate, 200 or so bishops talked of acknowledging the “gifts and qualities” of gay Catholics, but later backed down and failed to pass a measure on welcoming them “with respect and delicacy.” After the synod, Francis demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke, the outspoken American prelate who led the opposition to any changes. Attention now shifts to the synod’s second act, scheduled to be held in October 2015, when final decisions may be made.

A whirlwind shift on marriage equalityDiscussions on homosexuality echoed far beyond the Vatican, however. The number of states allowing same-sex marriage doubled, from 17 to 35 in addition to the District of Columbia, after the Supreme Court declined to review a number of pro-marriage rulings from lower courts. Within major denominations, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted by wide margins to allow gay clergy, and a number of United Methodist pastors were vindicated after court battles over marrying same-sex couples. Among evangelicals, the giant relief organization World Vision said it would recognize the same-sex marriages of employees, but reversed itself within 48 hours after donors revolted. Southern Baptists held two major conferences on homosexuality.

Mormon misconceptionsIn a series of online essays, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tried to carefully debunk popular caricatures of Mormon beliefs, a remarkable exercise in the real-time evolution of a distinctly homegrown American religion. No, the church said, Mormons don’t get their own planet in the afterlife, and no, there’s nothing “magical” about sacred temple garments. No, founder Joseph Smith didn’t literally translate an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll as part of LDS scriptures, and yes, Smith practiced plural marriage — as many as 40 wives, the church conceded.

America, meet the SatanistsSatanists, curiously, had a big year in 2014. In Oklahoma City, the New York-based Satanic Temple unveiled plans to erect a monument to Satan on the state Capitol grounds (right next to a Ten Commandments monument); in Boston, the group held a controversial “Black Mass” near Harvard despite an outcry from local Catholics. Filmmaker Roma Downey, however, cut Satan from her biblical epic, “Son of God,” after some viewers pointed out that the actor playing Satan looked too much like President Obama.

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