From the White House to the Great Wall of China, religion last year played a key role in the debate about the future of this earthly plane. This is the time of year when religion reporters select their top stories of the past 12 months. The 1998 list is impressive in showing the relevance religion (in its role as a moral, ethical and spiritual force) has in world events.
The most dramatic and over-publicized event of the year, of course, was the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. It prompted a national debate about sin and forgiveness, even invoking the biblical tale of King David and his affair with Bathsheba. The story triggered a national conversation over public and private behavior and the moral consequences.
Many religious leaders supported Clinton’s request for forgiveness (the president appointed three clerics to help him deal), while others called for his resignation.
The eye-popping scenario caused Clinton to be named co-religion newsmaker of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association.
2. Sharing the title with Clinton is the ailing Pope John Paul II, celebrating 20 years (one of the longest reigns in history) as spiritual leader of the world’s 800 million Catholics.
The Polish-born pontiff, acknowledged as one of the world’s most important moral authorities, made a historic visit to Cuba. He personally issued or authorized major documents on the Holocaust, the relationship between faith and science, and effected the controversial canonization of Edith Stein: the nun who died at Auschwitz and is believed to be the first Jewish-born convert made into a saint since Jesus’ Apostles.
The rest of my top 10:
3. The escalating conflict between traditional religion and homosexuality. In Wyoming, gay college student Matthew Shephard is beaten to death in October. The killing provokes national outrage and a debate over ads by Family Research Council and other groups suggesting that homosexuals can change their orientation. In Omaha, Neb., a United Methodist court falls one vote short of convicting the Rev. Jimmy Creech of violating church doctrine by performing a same-sex union ceremony. The Church’s Judicial Council later decides to strengthen the rule against such ceremonies by declaring it a canon of the Church.
In England, Anglican bishops declare homosexual practice to be incompatible with sacred scripture.
4. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant group, declares in August that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands’ "servant leadership," provoking an uproar from women’s groups.
5. The Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention, self-described largest black denomination in the country, admits to an "improper relationship" with a female employee and is indicted on 56 federal charges, including extortion and fraud. It is one of several high profile cases of clerical wrongdoing.
6. The struggle between religion and science continues over the issue of potential human cloning. Officials from 19 European nations sign an agreement banning human cloning.
7. The debate over assisted suicide continues; Oregon implements a physician-assisted suicide law, while Michigan voters reject legalized assisted suicide. Charges of first-degree murder are filed against Dr. Jack Kevorkian after the "60 Minutes" broadcast of his own participation in euthanasia.
8. Growing persecution of Christians around the world prompts U.S. to pass a new law mandating sanctions against government that persecute. The Dalai Lama tours the U.S. trying to end his people’s exile from Tibet and persecution of his religion, while President Clinton brings up the subject during meeting in China.
9. Buffalo’s Dr. Barnett Slepian, one of the few physicians performing abortions in that city, is murdered, provoking renewed debate over the role of fundamentalist Christians in anti-abortion activities.
10. A story of making up: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ agree to agree on some theological issues that have separated them.
In the Jewish world, here are the top 10 stories:
1. Anxiety over Jewish continuity continued. While not the dominating fast-breaking news story, the issue was always just below the surface. Several major initiatives gained steam: philanthropist Michael Steinhardt’s plan to fund Jewish day schools and Israel Labor Party leader Yossi Beilin’s vision to fund one trip to Israel for all Jewish teens and young adults.
2. President Clinton’s bid for forgiveness in Lewinsky scandal draws hefty support from Jewish religious leaders, but Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch calls for the president’s resignation.
3. The Holocaust fallout dominated world headlines. Switzerland created a $200 million humanitarian for Holocaust survivors, and Swiss banks agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement with the World Jewish Congress for survivor claims. Payments begin to East European survivors. International conference debates the thorny issue of identifying and returning looted art, property, and other assets. Investigations begin to focus on industrial slave labor on behalf of the Nazi regime.
4. While Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, the conflict grew nastier between Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel and the United States over whose rabbis can perform conversion and other Jewish life cycle rituals in Israel. A specially appointed Neeman Commission lowered the boil by offering a compromise plan, but the issue is still simmering.
5. Anti-Semitism rises in Russia, and synagogues are torched. President Boris Yeltsin visits a Moscow synagogue, a first for a Russian leader.
6. In March, the Vatican issues a long-awaited statement on the Holocaust expressing remorse, but its defense of World War II Pope Pius XII draws criticism from some Jewish groups. Pope John Paul II’s October canonization of Edith Stein (lower left in collage), a German Jew who became a nun and died in Auschwitz., sparks more controversy with Jewish groups.
7. A radical Orthodox rabbinical court announces "new" procedures to free agunot, Orthodox women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces, touching off yearlong charges and counter charges between the new court and traditional rabbinic courts condemning the upstarts.
8. Polish Catholic extremists erect hundreds of crosses next to Auschwitz, provoking outrage from Jewish groups who say it should be a religious symbol-free zone.
9. A tie: The Reform movement launches move to revitalize ethics and youth programs as intermarriage rates soar. The Conservative movement, for first time, includes matriarchs in the Amidah prayer in its new gender-sensitive prayerbook.
10. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who as national president for 30 years of Agudath Israel of America helped build the ultra-Orthodox organization into a major social service and political force, dies at 76 after a battle with leukemia. Rabbi Yakov Perlow, known as the Novominsker rebbe, is named the group’s new leader.