Religion was political in ’08

The big religion stories of ’08 were all about politics, it seems.

I’m finally catching up with the Religion Newswriters Association’s Top 10 Religion Stories of the year.

Number one, according to a vote of members, was the emergence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the impact of his You-Tubed sermons on Obama’s campaign. (John Hagee’s endorsement of John McCain was also thrown into this nomination).

The Wright story was my choice for number one. For one thing, Wright’s sermons gave many Americans a sense, probably for the first time, of the political, often-sharply provocative, nature of black preaching. Black preachers have always used the pulpit to attack politics they believe to be unfair. No one who’s been to black churches could be surprised by the anger in Wright’s voice.

Ironically, Wright’s sermons probably made many Americans fully aware of the extent of the historical racial divide in this country — just as Obama’s campaign was getting closer to closing that divide.

The whole Wright affair also provoked Obama to give his speech on race, perhaps the highlight of the entire campaign season.

Obama was also voted top newsmaker of ’08 by RNA.

Coming in second for story of the year was the overall effort by Democrats to talk about faith and woo faith-based voters. I think this was an important story, but I question how much impact this effort actually had. All religious groups moved a bit to the left in this election (compared to in 2004). How much of it had to do with faith issues or Obama’s faith talk?

Sarah Palin’s nomination and her appeal to evangelicals came in third. She energized the base, no doubt. But did she change anything, in the end? I’m not so sure.

Number 4? Proposition D passes in California.

Number 5? The pope stops by.

6: Episcopal mess. 7: Mumbai attacks. 8. China crackdown on Buddhists. 9. The recession and its effects on houses of worship. 10. Violence in Iraq.

He didn’t act like a prince

I’ve been pretty busy this afternoon writing an obituary for Cardinal Dulles.

I had a great conversation with Dr. Patrick Carey, the William J. Kelly, S.J., Chair in Catholic Theology at Marquette University, who has been working on a bio of Dulles.

He just finished his first draft.

Carey — a very nice fellow (that’s him) — had some extensive interviews with Dulles and has been reading through his voluminous papers for several summers. He last visited Dulles last summer, but the cardinal could only nod yes or no.

When Dulles gave his farewell lecture last April at Fordham (read by Fordham President Joe O’Hare), he said:

The good life does not have to be an easy one, as our Blessed Lord and the saints have taught us. Pope John Paul II in his later years used to say, “The Pope must suffer.” Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be expected as elements of a full human existence.

Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Carey told me that Dulles remained close with his large, extended family for his entire life. He would attend family gatherings each summer and talk for hours with his nieces and nephews.

He also told me that Dulles spent hours each day writing letters to people who contacted him. Dulles would write 3- and 4-page letters to people about all sorts of things, incorporating his theological positions. There are thousands of such letters.

A few years ago, Carey said, he interviewed Dulles in the morning and had dinner with him later that day. He dropped him off at about 9 p.m. Dulles was in his late 80s, but said he still had about two hours worth of correspondence to write.

He may have been a Prince of the Church since getting his red hat back in 2001. But Avery Dulles — who was born into American royalty and gave it up — never acted like a prince.

I’m looking forward to getting Carey’s book a bit down the road…

I understand, by the way, that Dulles’ funeral will be at St. Patrick’s Cathedral next week. But I don’t know that the day has been set. A few cardinals may have to make travel arrangements.

Cardinal Avery Dulles dead at 90

Cardinal Avery Dulles, the famed son of John Foster Dulles who converted to Catholicism and became one of his church’s most influential modern-day theologians, died this morning at 90.

He had been deteriorating for some time from post-polio syndrome. In recent years, he continued to write lectures, but had other people deliver them.

He was unable to speak when Pope Benedict XVI visited with him at St. Joseph’s Seminary in April.

Dulles was a central figure at Fordham for a long time. He served as the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society there for 20 years before stepping down this year.

Dulles was an unassuming, yet magisterial figure, if that makes any sense. I had the opportunity to interview him twice, once in the days before he flew to Rome to be made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001.

“I don’t think it will fully sink in until I get zapped,” he told me then. “Until then, I am still just a humble priest, a simple priest.”

Dulles was a brilliant fellow, completely committed to his theological pursuits. In the days ahead, many will comment on his gradual move to the right. Some loved him for it, others not. But everyone who cares about Catholicism and theology admired his intellect, I think.

Fordham’s Avery Dulles page is here.

A collection of Dulles’ writings for America magazine is here.

Evangelical leader can’t survive gay marriage comment

It has seemed increasingly clear that the Rev. Richard Cizik would not last as vp of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

No one can really speak for evangelicals, a vast, diverse and hard-to-define group of Christians. But the NAE has become one of the main groups that tries.

Cizik has gotten a lot of heat in recent years for trying to broaden the NAE’s agenda, moving away from the meat-and-potatoes conservative issues that evangelicals are known for.

He became a vocal critic of global warming, despite opposition from some leading evangelicals. He said he voted for Obama in the Democratic primaries.

But then he crossed a line on Dec. 2 when doing an interview with NPR. He said he supported civil-unions for gay couples and was “shifting” on gay marriage.

Gay marriage is one of the lightning rod issues of the day, thanks in part to religious support for Proposition D in California.

Cizik resigned yesterday.

Leith Anderson, President of the NAE, said of Cizik: “ Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized and affirmed our values there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituents.”

Regarding Cizik’s comments on gay marriage, David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine and a member of the NAE executive committee, told the AP: “He seemed to be abandoning the one thing where evangelical activists felt they had actually made a difference this time around.”

Who you calling Scrooge?

And this year’s winner of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s annual Ebenezer Award — for the person who most personifies Scrooge — is…Dr. Wilson G. Bradshaw, president of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla.

I love end-of-year prizes!

The Beckett Fund, a public-interest law firm that protects religious expression, chose Bradshaw because last month he banned all holiday decorations in public areas of his university. He cited “legal limitations.”

But Bradshaw (that’s him) changed his mind a week later after waves of negative comments.

“Like Scrooge, Dr. Bradshaw was naughty, but then he got nice,” said Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund.

Instead of honoring the winner with a lump of coal, as in past years, the Beckett people will be sending Bradshaw a gift basket.

Runners-up for the prize: the City of Pittsburgh, for eliminating Christmas from its annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony; and the town of Patchogue, Long Island, for changing the name of its annual Christmas Boat Parade to the Patchogue Holiday Boat Parade.

Will they play the Elvis version?

Hmmm. We got two releases today from churches that will hold “Blue Christmas” services.

That’s blue as in…sad, down, blue.

Katonah United Methodist Church will hold one on Thursday, December 18, at 7:30 p.m.

Their statement: “Are you not very merry this Christmas season? Has a relationship that ended or a hardship taken the joy from your life? If you are feeling blue about the Christmas holidays, join us for a worship service of healing and hope…”

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in White Plains will get blue on Sunday, Dec. 21 at 5 p.m.

They say: “A pastoral outreach to MANY MANY people who JUST CAN’T DEAL WITH ‘holiday JOY, and celebration’…. Especially those who are alone; for what ever the reason. Widows/widowers, divorced, alienated children/parents/grandparents, just plain lonely….. “

During a recession, not forgetting the less fortunate

There’s no getting around it: This holiday season, the economy is on everyone’s mind.

People of faith from all traditions are worried about losing their jobs, finding new jobs, losing their savings and college funds, and on and on. Many religious congregations are taking in less money — in contributions, dues, etc. — and are cutting programs and ministries or thinking about it. They also have less to spend on needs in their communities.

I’ve been talking to clergy in recent days about what they can say or do to help people deal with their economic angst. I’ll be writing about it next week.

One message that I have been hearing is that people, no matter their fears and concerns, cannot forget about the less fortunate.

Here’s a good example: On Saturday (Dec. 13), more than 130 volunteers are expected to heed the call of Catholic Charities of New York and gather at the big K-Mart on Astor Place, where they will be buying hats, gloves, jackets, scarves, etc. for needy families. They’ll be shopping from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Catholic Charities’ St. Nicholas Adopt-A-Family project matches gifts with selected families that Catholic Charities caseworkers have seen throughout the year.

Needless to say, Catholic Charities is looking for more volunteers to provide cash or shopping time.

If you would like to contribute, contact Kathleen McGowan at 212.371.1011, ext. 2525, or e-mail

His ‘Last Lecture’ still inspires

And Beliefnet’s 2008 Most Inspiring Person of the Year is…Randy Pausch, the professor who delivered his now-famous “Last Lecture” talk on Sept. 18, 2007, after learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer.

I haven’t read the book version of his talk, although it’s in my house somewhere. Maybe I’ll start it this weekend…

You can watch the lecture from one of several links available here.

Pausch’s own website is still up here. At some point, he wrote this message:

I am flattered and embarassed by all the recent attention to my “Last Lecture.” I am told that, including abridged versions, over six million people have viewed the lecture online. The lecture really was for my kids, but if others are finding value in it, that is wonderful. But rest assured; I’m hardly unique. Send your kids to Carnegie Mellon and the other professors here will teach them valuable life lessons long after I’m gone.

The other Beliefnet finalists were Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman, for the way he dealt with the death of a child, and Boy Scouts from Iowa’s Little Sioux Scout Ranch, who came to the rescue of the community after a tornado ripped through their camp site.

Why was Pausch chosen? Beliefnet says:

Pausch was selected because of his huge, far-reaching impact and because even after his death he continues to inspire legions of viewers. Pausch’s lecture, delivered for a small audience at Carnegie Mellon University where he was a professor of computer science, became an internet phenomenon. He reached more people than he ever dreamed of. People uploaded his words of wisdom and inspiring tips for life and forwarded them to friends. By 2008, his inspiration had reached almost 20 million people, His message was simple and powerful: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

Possibility of gay marriage in NYS in limbo

As Election Day was nearing, many opponents of gay marriage in New York state were quite anxious about the possibility of the state Senate falling into Democratic hands.

A Democrat-controlled Senate, joining a Democrat-controlled Assembly, could make gay marriage a reality.

Sure enough, Democrats came away with a 32-30 majority in the Senate. But a funny thing happened. Three Democrats — two state senators and one senator-elect — have threatened to support a Republican leadership and keep the Senate under GOP control.

As my colleague Keith Eddings reports today, the “Gang of Three” has several interests — including leadership positions in the Senate for themselves.

But one of the Gang, Sen. Ruben Diaz of the Bronx (that’s him), also wants assurances that a Democrat-controlled Senate will NOT bring gay marriage to the floor.

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative evangelical lobbying group that strongly opposes gay marriage, has been watching things develop with great interest.

Rev. Duane Motley, the group’s leader, writes:

And so my friends, the battle for control of the State Senate is not over. It may not be over until January 2009, when the vote is actually taken. Until then we need to pray great wisdom for “The Gang of 3.”

That Cheech is still funny

I got a release today from the Hallmark Channel about a new Christmas movie premiering Saturday, Expecting a Miracle, that stars Cheech Marin from Cheech & Chong as a priest.

In a Q&A, Cheech notes that it’s the third time he’s a played a priest. And he adds:

When I play a priest, the bonus rule applies: I get a hundred hours of court-mandated community service knocked off. It becomes a win-win for everybody.