The first day of February launched Black History Month and all across the country congregations engage their people in learning about race and religion in America. For instance, I was in Indianapolis at worship with the people of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church; they included a PowerPoint feature on Black Migration in the morning liturgy and spread displays of art and artifacts throughout their campus. At the same time, Baptist Women in Ministry launched their annual Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching to mark the ministry of an influential 18th century frontier preacher and to promote the pulpit as a place for women. Most Baptist churches, black, white, and Latino, continue to resist women in the preaching role.
Abortion took center stage in the national conversation after the New York state assembly passed legislation that mirrors the federal projection of the right to an abortion. This drew strident criticism from both grassroots representatives and church hierarchies. Then the Virginia legislature introduced similar laws, this time drawing attention to late term abortions. Finally, President Trump picked up the theme for his State of the Union speech, challenging Congress to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks.
Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates, the first time a leader of the Roman Catholic Church has traveled to the Arabian Peninsula. While there he signed a joint declaration with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, a leading authority for many Sunni Muslims. That document says, in part, “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in his wisdom, through which he created human beings.” The document asserts the right of religious freedom and appeals to both Christians and Muslims to recognize the other’s faith as something “willed by God in his wisdom.” This is sure to spark conversation and controversy among religious leaders all around the world.
Two new research projects from the Pew Charitable Trusts tell us interesting things about the peoples of the world. First those who live in Mexico, Columbia, and Ecuador self-report the highest levels of happiness; those who live in the United States rank 15th on the list, between Argentina and Taiwan. Around the world, religiously active people report the highest level of happiness (and are also more likely to be involved in other activities and organizations). In another study, researchers asked Americans about evolution. Using a new one-step format offering individuals three options for describing the history of humankind on earth, Americans strongly prefer a description that attributes evolution to God or natural forces; less than 20% assert a conviction that humans have always existed as they are now, down from almost a third of the population in earlier such surveys.
Religion found a voice on the public stage when President Trump gave his State of the Union speech this week in the House of Representatives. He called for policies that would make “our faith deeper.” Among these he advocated revised immigration laws and limits to access to abortion. He hailed both the American embassy in Jerusalem and the recent legislation on criminal justice and incarceration. While many religious leaders provided official responses, some pro and some con, that of Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition articulated three of the policies that largely explain why white Evangelicals continue to support the president: the Israeli embassy, the opposition to abortion, and the support for “religious freedom” [meaning the right to refuse service to certain people].