If ever there was a time for us to turn to God and to pray as a nation, it is now." Even as evangelist Billy Graham spoke those words in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Americans thronged to impromptu prayer meetings across the country. Attendance at weekend services shot up an average 20 percent to 30 percent in the weeks following 9/11. A Gallup Poll found religion "very important" to 65 percent of Americans, the highest number in 36 years. The American Bible Society reported a 42 percent jump in Bible sales, a figure nearly matched by Zondervan, one of the world's largest Bible publishers. Christian music sales climbed as much as 33 percent. President Bush emphasized prayer and faith in powerful addresses to the nation. On the lawn of the Capitol, a large group of congressmen and senators sang "God Bless America," which was fast becoming America's second national anthem. But by year's end, most of the indicators had returned to pre-9/11 patterns, except in the New York City area and among the country's large churches. What I meant to say…
After-shocks from the September terror attacks have been rumbling through some sectors of the evangelical movement. Jerry Falwell was forced to issue apologies for blaming the attacks on pagans, abortionists, homosexuals, liberal rights groups, and secularists in the schools and courts. He said their sins had caused God to judge the country and withhold His protection. Mr. Falwell made the remarks on a 700 Club show. Pat Robertson at first sided with Mr. Falwell on the broadcast ("I totally concur"), then distanced himself from the remarks on Fox News (they were "totally inappropriate"). Mr. Falwell said his comments had been ill-timed, insensitive, and divisive at a time of national mourning, and only the terrorists were guilty. President Bush backed away from both leaders and also from Franklin Graham, new head of the Billy Graham organization, after Mr. Graham characterized Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion" on national television. Mr. Graham later wrote a column that clarified the description but did not back away from it. Many prominent evangelicals, including James Dobson, Bill Bright, Assemblies of God head Thomas Trask, Mr. Robertson, and others, signed and circulated a "Biblical Response to America's National Emergency." The paper, designed to be read from pulpits, made points similar to Mr. Falwell's, but was more carefully worded. It lamented America's "crumbling foundations" and appealed to Christians to repent, pray for forgiveness, reach out to others, and reclaim the promise of revival. It cited the forcing of prayer and the Ten Commandments out of the schools, the flood of "unimaginable perversion" through films and television, and millions of abortions as evidence of America's rejection of God and His word. Comings and goings
Resigned: Kevin Mannoia, 45, as president of the 51-denomination National Association of Evangelicals after two years on the job, in June. Board members were unhappy with his performance in management and fundraising. Named as interim president: Leith Anderson, author, teacher, and pastor of 4,300-attendee Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn. Resigned: Pat Robertson, 71, as president of the 11-year-old Christian Coalition, once a powerful conservative influence on the nation's political scene. His successor: Roberta Combs, a veteran Coalition executive from South Carolina. Dumped: Gary Ezzo, controversial author (On Becoming Babywise and founder of Growing Families International), by his publisher, Multnomah Publishers. Reasons: too much criticism of his parenting philosophy, and too many questions following excommunication from the latest of three churches he left under a cloud. Released: Gao Zhan, 39, U.S. resident, sociologist, and evangelical Christian, in July, following five and a half months of detention in China on bogus spy charges. Confirmed: Bones dug up from a remote Texas ranch in March were those of professional atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 76, her son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, 30. The three had disappeared five years earlier, the victims of kidnapping, theft, and murder. Word games
Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment this month unloaded its lagging Word Entertainment division on Warner Music Group for $84.1 million in cash (after paying Thomas Nelson $120 million for it in 1996). Word also distributes Integrity Music and Big Idea products. The division will remain in Nashville and retain most of its employees. AOL Time Warner executives say Christian/Gospel music is on a growth curve, so their company stands to become a major player in the field-a view not shared by some industry experts. Gaylord says it wants to focus instead on its core hospitality business (Grand Ole Opry, Opryland hotels). But the firm also is focusing on lawsuits it filed against Nelson, the latest one in July. It claims a humorous ad campaign by its Nashville neighbor deliberately denigrated and devalued the Word trademark that Gaylord acquired from Nelson in 1996. Samples: "'I left Word so I wouldn't get left behind' -Tim LaHaye" and "'Stay with Word? That's a laugh' -humorist Barbara Johnson." Nelson claims it was all in fun as part of a campaign, since discontinued, to introduce its new W Publishing Group. Gaylord's people aren't laughing. Benchmarks
Federal and state courts over the year handled a variety of religion-related cases. Among the decisions that reaffirmed or even strengthened free-speech and equal-treatment protection, the U.S. Supreme Court:
- reversed lower courts in ruling that a New York school district erred when it allowed some groups to use classrooms for after-school-hours sessions but banned the Good News Club from doing so because it emphasized religious content;
- let stand an appeals court decision that Virginia's mandatory "moment of silence" in public schools is no threat to the Constitution;
- left in place an appeals court ruling that approved Alabama's 1993 law allowing students to lead prayers at school activities, including sports events, assemblies, and graduations, as long as they don't promote one religion over another or attempt to proselytize.
- Maryland's highest court, reversing a lower court judgment, shot down a county law banning churches and other religious organizations from considering religious beliefs in hiring practices unless the employee was to "perform purely religious functions." The case involved four teachers dismissed from a church-run school.
- Clergy who disclose confidential information about parishioners do not have to fear financial liability for their actions. New York's highest court, in a case involving a suit by a synagogue member against two Orthodox Jewish rabbis, found no legal right to sue: "The prospect of conducting a trial to determine whether a cleric's disclosure is in accord with religious tenets has troubling constitutional implications."
- In the most important court decision on religious freedom in Canada in years, the country's Supreme Court rebuked a provincial teacher-certification agency for discriminating against a church-related university and its students on the basis of their religious beliefs. The case involved 2,800-student Trinity Western University, a school in British Columbia affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada. Without citing any evidence, the certification agency had refused to grant licensing powers to the school on grounds its graduates likely would promote discrimination against homosexuals.
Get out or go under
To see in microcosm the struggles conservatives in America's liberal-led mainline denominations faced in 2001, look no farther than 200-attendee Circleville Presbyterian in New York. Church leaders believe continued membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA) threatens the very future of the congregation. The church has asked the PCUSA's regional governing unit, Hudson River presbytery, one of the 2.5-million-member PCUSA's most liberal, for permission to leave, join the 190-congregation Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and keep its property-an unlikely prospect. Circleville is committed to evangelical doctrine and outreach. Per-capita giving at $2,500 is more than triple the PCUSA average. But the church has stopped growing. Its leaders say key members have been walking, others have reduced their giving, and it's harder to attract new people. Slimmer offerings forced the church to make cutbacks and halt construction of a new facility. The leaders blame the mess on the liberal activism of the presbytery and the denomination's national governing body. In 1999 the presbytery authorized clergy to conduct services of blessing for same-sex couples, igniting national controversy. The PCUSA's highest court approved the step, provided the services don't resemble marriages or endorse homosexual practice-a curious in-the-beholder's-eye verdict. After some ministers in Hudson River began promoting same-sex union services, Circleville took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper to say where it stood. Another shoe dropped in June at the PCUSA's general assembly, the most liberal-minded one in years. It voted by a 3-2 margin to remove a "fidelity-in-marriage, chastity-in-singleness" ordination standard from the constitution and to nullify a 23-year-old ban on ordination of practicing homosexuals. More than three-fourths of Hudson River's delegates voted in favor of the changes. Hoping to ride out the storm, Circleville aligned itself with the conservative Confessing Church Movement that sprang up in the PCUSA in March. (CCM already includes 10 percent of the PCUSA's 11,364 congregations and 15 percent of its members, and is still growing. It emphasizes three central themes: Christ alone is Lord and Savior, Scripture is the infallible rule of faith and life, and God's standards for holy living transcend political, cultural, and social changes.) Denominational dancing
Accommodation might best describe what happened in some denominational settings this year. The 2.5-million-adherent Assemblies of God loosened the standards for ministerial credentials by now allowing people who were divorced before conversion-and can prove that's when it happened-to apply for clergy certification. The group also rejected as "unscriptural" any expression of faith that "suggests or requires one to exclude competent medical advice and/or treatment when seeking prayer for healing." The 810,000-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pension board authorized medical coverage for domestic partners of unmarried employees. The shrinking 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ was the first denomination to offer such coverage. The 125,000-member Salvation Army flip-flopped on the issue of domestic-partner benefits for non-clergy employees. The Army first allowed the 13-state Western branch to provide them in order to compete for millions of dollars of taxpayer money from cities and counties that placed such a requirement on contractors, then rescinded the arrangement after supporters and many of its own clergy rocked headquarters with protests. The 5.1-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America agreed to accommodate clergy opposed for conscience reasons to an element in a "common communion" pact the ELCA made with the Episcopal Church. The pact inducted ELCA bishops, formerly ordinary pastoral administrators, into "apostolic succession," as understood by Catholics and Anglicans. Responding to widespread unrest over the change, the ELCA adopted a bylaw that allows bishops to delegate ordination to other ELCA clergy "for pastoral reasons in unusual circumstances." Episcopal leaders say the circumstances had better be rare, or they may reconsider the pact. It allows the two denominations to call clergy ordained in either one.