Religion A Big Story in 2008

Religion took center stage in the news during 2008. Tell Me More looks back at the people and the stories that rocked the faith world — from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Rev. Rick Warren to the fallout over gay marriage in California. Salim Muwakkil, editor for In These Times magazine, is joined by Michael Sean Winters, a political blogger for the Catholic magazine America, to discuss how 2008 helped shape religious dialogue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, you talk back to us about the stories that moved you this week and some of you have even been brave enough to make your New Year's resolutions public. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, our weekly faith matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. 2008 was a year where there was no shortage of things to talk about - from the Pope's visit to controversies surrounding the spiritual leaders of the presidential candidates to the battle over gay marriage and poor working conditions in a Kosher food plant.

We decided it made sense to look back at just a few of the most important stories touching on matters of faith over the past year. So, we've called Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times Magazine, and Michael Sean Winters, who blogs for America, a Catholic weekly magazine. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us and Happy New Year.

Mr. MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS (Political Blogger, America Magazine): Glad to be here.

Mr. SALIM MUWAKKIL (Senior Editor, In These Times Magazine): Happy New Year, Michel.

MARTIN: Michael, in just a few days the Bush administration comes to an end and this is an administration that has been, I think, strongly identified with matters of faith as kind of a governing principle - at least the president, President George W. Bush, was very vocal about his faith and the way in which is faith has affected his governance. What do think this administration's legacy on matters of faith will be?

Mr. WINTER: Well, I think, you know, the number one outcome of the election was that it didn't work, is that it turns out even the evangelicals and conservative Catholics or moderate to conservative Catholics have 401(k)s and he had no plan of action for the number one issue in America. And I think one of the things the media tended to get wrong was they said, you know, moral issues got pushed aside and the economy took center stage. And what the reality is is the economy is a moral issue.

And Barack Obama was able very effectively to address that. You know, providing for your family is a moral concern and it requires self-discipline and a certain amount of self-denial and things like that. And that's the kind of issue that George Bush was just tone deaf on.

MARTIN: Interesting. Salim, what about you? What's your take on that?

Mr. MUWAKKIL: Yeah, I agree with that. I think that by narrowing the religious impulse to a certain political configuration - you know, the Republican Party, the party of religion - I think that people began to look beyond that that when they realized that these other issues were actually important, were impinging on what they considered their religious faith. And they understood that they had a wider dimension than simply, you know, traditional concerns of gay marriage, guns and all of that - you know, traditional areas of evangelical concern were seen to be much broader and I think that that forced the religious community to look beyond political parties.

MARTIN: But, Michael, was it in part though because Barack Obama, as a candidate, was successful in reframing the way these issues were discussed? Was it - I'm wondering what's the chicken and what's the egg here. Was is that a broader cultural impulse to reframe these issues as moral and ethical questions or was it that you had a political entrepreneur as it were, in the form of Barack Obama, who reframed the conversation?

Mr. WINTERS: I think a little of both. I think there you see within the religious community, after eight years of George W. Bush, a sense that they really were taking for granted and that there were some internal contradictions. How can you be pro-life while pursuing such a militaristic foreign policy, by way of example.

And I think Barack picked that up, understood that the Democratic party in its most recent nominees had tone deaf people when it came to religious concerns. And so, he kind of rode a wave that was already there and is still planning on riding that wave.

MARTIN: But speaking of tone deaf, let's talk about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, if I can use that as a segue. What do you think the significance of that story is, Michael - and of course, Salim, I'll come to you, too. But does that story - is that a story about politics? Is that a story about race? Is that a story about faith? What do you think that story means, looking back on it, now that we're away from kind of the heat of a contested political race?

Mr. WINTERS: I think the immediate religious significance is that if you're in a pulpit and you say something that others perceive as outrageous or crazy, you don't get a pass just because you're in the pulpit. And, you know, Jerry Falwell would get that pass. And here both on the left and on the right - Jeremiah Wright, but also John Hankey were both thrown under the bus without any significant consequence for the political - politicians who were doing the throwing under the bus. And I think that's a good thing for religion, that you're not protected by the pulpit from saying extreme things. If you're sending out your sermons on DVDs, you're responsible for what you say.

MARTIN: Interesting. Salim, what's your take?

Mr. MUWAKKIL: Well, I agree with that, in fact, but I think also what it did was acquainted much of America to a branch - a stream of theology that really wasn't in the public realm before and that's liberation - Black Liberation Theology. And what Reverend Wright - the intensity of his sermon, the histrionics and of all it - I think was in many ways odd to a lot of Americans. It was really the first time that they had exposure to that. And in that sense, I think it widened our understanding of how religion responds to various communities in this country.

MARTIN: Well, what - do you agree with Michael's point, though, that in a way that we set a new boundary for what's acceptable public discourse, whether it's religious speech or not?

Mr. MUWAKKIL: I don't - I really don't think so. I think the focus of this campaign heightened the significance of those kinds of speeches. But I don't think it will change any of the sermons that are being produced on DVDs around this country. I think the intensity and the, you know, the sectarianism will still be a part of whatever is there.

MARTIN: Speaking of intensity - and we're skipping around a bit because there are so many stories that we would want to talk about this year. And we do want to talk about the Pope's visit. We also want to talk about some important religious figures who passed on this year, but we want to save some time for that.

But speaking of intensity we just cannot not talk about this whole controversy over Proposition 8, California's law - a referendum - an initiative on the ballot that overturned the court ruling that had allowed gay marriage. So now, this will no longer be allowed.

And it became an issue that - it was a story in the political realm and also involving religious figures - the Reverend - well, Pastor Rick Warren who - of Saddleback Church, a major figure, a writer - has been asked to offer the - what's that - the invocation at the inauguration. This is a hugely controversial issue.

What do we make of this story? And Michael, is this about politics? Is this about faith? Is this all about a boundary of what is acceptable and what can be said by a person who's a religious figure? Because I think that Pastor Warren and those who agree with him on this point would say it is their job to speak the truth as they understand it, whatever the consequences politically may be.

Mr. WINTERS: Oh, and I think Pastor Warren would say that in encouraging people not to pursue a gay lifestyle, he's actually trying to help them. Now, I think he's wrong on that, but that's his belief. And some of the things he said were over the line - he's actually apologized and retracted.

I do think that the intent of the president-elect was to continue reaching out to the evangelical community, even though they did not back him in the election in significantly larger numbers than they had supported Kerry. You did see a shift in attitudes. You did see a broadening of their concerns to include the environment and some non-traditional issues and I think he's trying to speak to that. And Rick Warren is that face of the evangelical movement that is open to a more complicated view of the role of the church in the world.

MARTIN: Salim, what is your take on this?

Mr. MUWAKKIL: Well, I think, aside from some initial protests and expressions of outrage from various communities, I don't think Barack Obama really has much to lose by inviting such a controversial figure like Rick Warren. I think he has much to gain.

He's whole notion is that this is a time of reconciliation and if we can't reconcile with those religious figures who we hold distinctly, you know, opposite actually, opinions of certain issues about - if we can't do that, then we can't reconcile anything. And so, I think his point is being emphasized by his choice of the invocation speaker.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with religion writers Michael Sean Winters and Salim Muwakkil about the top faith stories of 2008.

Of course a huge story was the Pope's visit early in 2008. What do you think the impact of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. was, Michael? It was a huge story at the time, but we're not talking about it very much now.

Mr. WINTERS: Well, it depends on who the "we" is.

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. WINTERS: In the Catholic community...

MARTIN: Absolutely.

Mr. WINTERS: It's still.

MARTIN: Well said. Well said.

Mr. WINTERS: It's still a very, very big issue.

MARTIN: That's the kind of thing I would normally - would've said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, I thank you for that correction.

Mr. WINTERS: He - you know, the thing about the Pope is, you know, he had this long history as a cardinal in charge of enforcing orthodoxy and earned the sobriquet Der Panzer Cardinal. And I think some people, especially conservative Catholics, were hoping that is who would show up on our shores.

And in fact, there was no finger-wagging, there was no communion-denying of - to pro-choice politicians. Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry both received communion at his mass here in Washington. There was a great deal of encouragement.

I went to one of the events at Catholic University where, again - a chance where the Pope could have, you know, laid down the law and in fact was very encouraging of the work of the Catholic educators. I thought it was just an extraordinary visit and really showed him as a pastor.

My hope is that some of the American bishops will look at that and realize that, in this election cycle, some of them, especially toward the end, really were finger-wagging, saying you can't vote for Barack Obama because of his pro-choice politics.

And that was so not what Benedict had done. I think the more moderate bishops will start pointing to the Pope as an example and saying, you know, that this is the way forward. And in the Catholic Church with its hierarchic structure, the example of the Pope is a pretty good trump card.

MARTIN: What I'm hearing you say is kind of the message - overall the message of the year was moderation. That moderation kind of ruled the day in religious conversation.

Mr. WINTERS: And reasonableness. I mean, you know, not moderation for the sake of moderation, but because, you know, these - how you approach the abortion issue is a complicated issue.

MARTIN: Salim, another story that caught our eye - and I'm rushing you along here, of course, I'm sorry, there's so much ground to cover - was another story that caught our eye was out of Postville, Iowa, where the owners of a Kosher meat packing facility were arrested for employing undocumented workers and exploiting them, hiring underage workers and so forth. This matter is still in the courts, but this prompted a tremendous amount of discussion, both in secular circles and also in Orthodox and religious circles, about the nexus between kind of secular law and religious law. What do you think the fallout of this is?

Mr. MUWAKKIL: Well, I mean, we see some of that fallout in the discussion of Madoff, the guy who enacted this grand Ponzi scheme. A lot of religious leaders are, you know, are critical of him because of his corruption of Judaism from their perspective. And I think in some ways, you know, that's why there was such an outcry with the situation in Iowa. I want to just speak one thing about the Pope as well, Michel, if I may.

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. MUWAKKIL: A lot of people were afraid that the Pope would kind of scuttle the ecumenical efforts that were made by the previous Pope. And he hasn't done that. Many people feared he would be a more sectarian in his Christianity, in his, you know, Catholicism. and he hasn't been. He's been willing to outstretch and make gestures of outreach to Islamic communities. And that's been a very positive, I think, development.

MARTIN: OK, and we only have about two minutes left, so unfortunately, we're going to have to skip over some of the folks we wanted to acknowledge once again, people who we did acknowledge on the program earlier this year.

Warith Deen Mohammed died in September. He was a major figure in the Nation of Islam and brought it closer to traditional Islam. And of course, Bishop S.C. "Daddy" Madison died in April, and he was a major figure in the United House of Prayer. So, I wanted to - in the time we have left, just a short amount of time, I wanted to ask each of you, looking forward to 2009, what do you think are the important religious stories or stories of matters of faith that we'll be looking to, Salim? And then, Michael?

Mr. MUWAKKIL: Well, you know, I think, after Wallace Mohammed died, Louis Farrakhan made a gesture to open the Nation of Islam. This is really the last bastion exclusively in black Islam in this country. And I think it was a major development, which hasn't been acknowledged, I think, in mainstream media because, you know, because of the kind of quiet and secretive nature of the Nation of Islam. But I think it's extremely important and well have ramifying effects.

MARTIN: Michael?

Mr. WINTERS: Yeah, I think the Iowa situation you just mentioned is a great opportunity for Obama to go in and say, look, you know, resolving the immigration issue is not just a political necessity, it's a religious necessity. We do not want the U.S. government going in and separating parents from their families. That was outrageous. And I think if he frames that as moral issue, again, it will help expand that universe of moral concerns in the political arena that we're already mentioning in terms of Rick Warren and the environment and things like that. I think that's a very pressing moral issue.

MARTIN: Michael Sean Winters writes a daily political blog for the Catholic weekly magazine America. He's also the author of a new book, "Left at the Altar," and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. Salim Muwakkil is the senior editor of In These Times magazine, he joined us from Chicago. I thank you both so much and Happy New Year to you.

Mr. WINTERS: Great to be here. Happy New Year.

Mr. MUWAKKIL: Thank you, Michel and same to you.

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