The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

While there was nothing new about someone entering a religious sanctuary and gunning down the faithful, the bloodshed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was truly historic.

Was that 2017's most important religion story?

What about Myanmar troops forcing half a million Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh, with reports of children being beheaded and people burned alive? What about the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, which turned into #ChurchToo, with women describing soul-wracking private tragedies.

For me, the year's biggest story took place in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacist marchers shouted anti-Semitic curses and claimed God was on their side. Meanwhile, clergy prayed and sang hymns in counter-protests. Southern Baptists and other believers proclaimed the alt-right was working for Satan.

But that wasn't the top story, either, according to journalists voting in the Religion News Association poll for 2017. No, once again this was a year dominated by Donald Trump and armies of evangelicals who, in myriad mainstream news reports, marched in lockstep support behind his political agenda.

Trump was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, after "his inauguration triggered upheaval across a number of religious fronts, among them the role of evangelical support of his administration; fierce debates over Islam, race and religious liberty; the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and executive orders relating to immigration and terrorism," said the RNA announcement.

Meanwhile, in a variety of public debates, bitter Trump-era rifts among Christian conservatives kept getting deeper and wider. This was perfectly captured in a New York Times forum after the Alabama defeat of old Religious Right hero Roy Moore.

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

It's a question that may pop into the minds of Jewish children at some point when they are little: Does Santa Claus deliver their Hanukkah presents?

The answer must be "no," according to shopping-mall orthodoxy, since the cultural icon called Santa does his thing on Christmas Eve.

Hanukkah gifts have to come from somewhere else and, according to a daring new book for children, that pre-dawn work is done by a Steampunk-styled Jewish hero named Hanukkah Harvie, who flies out of the Statue of Liberty in his Hanukkopter.

But that solution to the presents puzzle raises another tricky question: What happens when Christmas falls during Hanukkah and Santa Claus and Harvie show up at the same house? After all, a 2013 study by the Pew Forum Religion & Public Life found that the intermarriage rate has hit 58 percent for all American Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. Lots of children are growing up in homes that, to one degree or another, are interfaith.

"The reality, like it or not, is that there are a million-plus children that are doing this, who are trying to make sense out of Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time," asked David Michael Slater, author of "Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus."

"Do they have a story? What's that like? … I was trying to walk a fine line, while avoiding having to take a stand on all of these hot-button issues. I guess this book's message isn't really religious at all, but it's about people who are trying to live together with some kind of tolerance."

Hanukkah is already a complex and ironic holiday. This year's eight-day "Festival of Lights" began at sundown on Dec. 12th. The season's symbol is a menorah with nine candles symbolizing a miracle -- tradition says that a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated their temple from Greek oppressors. The center candle is used to light the other candles, with one new candle on each night.

This was once a simple season with simple pleasures.

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

The way President Donald Trump sees things, his big tax-bill win on Capitol Hill was a giant -- maybe even huuuuge -- Christmas present for America.

"Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before," he said, speaking in Utah earlier this week. "We're bringing Christmas back and we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody."

That's good rhetoric for a political rally, as long as most of the cheering people think of Christmas as a cultural season built on gifts, travel, fun, food, festivities and activities with friends and family. And that turns out to be true for 43.1 percent of those polled in a new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. Only 3.9 percent viewed Christmas exclusively in religious terms and another 11.4 percent as "mostly religious."

"It's important to realize that the commercialization of the season doesn't appear to be the driving factor in what's creating the cultural Christmas we see today," said Marc Pugliese, who teaches religion and theology at Saint Leo University in central Florida.

Many Americans, in fact, are "tired or fed up" with the tsunami of advertising and materialism they see every December, he added. "So you can't just say that the shopping mall has won. … But the reality is that almost everything that's going on is defined by the culture's secular calendar -- what's happening at school, at work and in the media."

The bottom line, he said, is clear: "Christmas is about parties and get-togethers with family and friends."

On the other side of the equation, 42.4 percent of those surveyed picked the "commercialization of the season" as the most annoying American Christmas "tradition," with 38.3 percent saying that the "early start for the Christmas season" got the nod in that department.

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

It was soon after Thanksgiving when Chelsen Vicari noticed a new foreign-missions display at the Southern Baptist church she joined after moving to Fancy Gap, in the Southwest Virginia hills.

What caught her eye was a large -- sort of -- image of Lottie Moon, a pioneer missionary and educator in the late 19th Century.

"I was relatively new to Southern Baptist life, so I had no idea who she was," said Vicari, describing that moment two years ago. "I couldn't understand why they made the cardboard cutout so short. … I asked around and what everybody kept telling me was that she was a missionary in China and that she was really short -- like 4-foot-3."

Vicari kept digging and found details that, as a writer, left her intrigued. For starters, the Southern Baptist project long known as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- with deep ties to the Women's Missionary Union -- has raised $4.4 billion since 1888. The International Mission Board's 2017 goal is $160 million.

Eventually, Vicari read many of the letters Moon began writing after she reached China in 1873. These inspiring and poignant epistles, over her 40 years of service, helped change how Baptists built their global work in missions.

The letters challenged comfortable Americans to consider the needs of suffering people in China. But they also included blunt quotations such as: "I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done," and "I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to the women of China!"

Moon died on Christmas Eve, 1912, her body weakened by a near-starvation diet she adopted while serving others during a famine.

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family's log-home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world's most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word "evangelical."

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word "evangelical" means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham's son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of "evangelical" are so sharp that "several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are 'Christians,' let alone 'evangelicals' as defined by any set of core doctrines," said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to "some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both," as opposed to "leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that's about it."

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

When Jimmy Meeks reached Sutherland Springs, Texas, the First Baptist Church was screened off as a crime scene as experts investigated the Sunday morning massacre that claimed 26 lives. 

As a retired police officer, and a Baptist preacher, Meeks didn't need to enter the ravaged sanctuary. As a church-security consultant, he paid special attention to the church's parking lot and the surrounding area.

When the gunman arrived, he parked across the street. He had to cover lots of ground to reach the church.

"It's just a simple little building," said Meeks, who is part of a "Sheepdog Seminars" team, training church leaders how to protect biblical "sheep" from "wolves."

"There are churches like this one all over the country -- there always have been and there always will be. ... So many churches don't have someone outside in the parking lot, standing watch. They don't see the danger coming."

Church-security issues are back in the news, as America faces renewed debates about safety, faith and the Second Amendment.

But some church leaders, like Meeks, have been studiously paying attention to church-security issues ever since the night of Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during a youth-group prayer rally.

Since 1999, at least 800 people have died in church attacks across America, said Meeks, who has 35 years of police experience, including 11 years when he led a Fort Worth church while serving as an officer in nearby Hurst. Two of his areas of expertise are hostage negotiations and crime-prevention techniques.

So far, 108 people have been killed in churches during 2017. The previous record was 77 in one year.

At some point, 'Christianese' jargon may warp attempts at real prayer after tragedies

At some point, 'Christianese' jargon may warp attempts at real prayer after tragedies

After the stunning news from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the online chorus of Americans offering support.

"Reports out of Texas are devastating," said Ryan, on Twitter. "The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now."

A star in the Star Trek galaxy, and frequent guest on "The Big Bang Theory," was furious with Ryan.

"The murdered victims were in a church," tweeted Wil Wheaton. "If prayers did anything, they'd still be alive, you worthless sack of [expletive]."

Wheaton later added: "Hey, real and actual people of faith: I hear you. I apologize for insulting you, in my rage at Paul Ryan's refusal to address gun violence."

This was, of course, yet another round of warfare about the Second Amendment, faith, bloodshed, media bias and the political powers that be. The fighting hadn't even ended after the secular vs. sacred Twitter wars following the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.

At this point, it's clear that the fighting over "thoughts and prayers" tweets is yet another sign that America is dividing into warring camps in which language and symbolic actions are causing pain and confusion, rather than unity, said Tim Stewart, a professional wordsmith who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website.

It doesn't help that the vocabulary of many Christians, especially evangelicals, is packed with "insider jargon they use all the time, whether they know it or not. … This language is like a liturgy for them, but they don't understand that other people don't get it," said Stewart, who was raised Catholic, but attends a Southern Baptist church in Austin, Texas.

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Colorado students network to unplug key social-media apps, and an archbishop notices

Anyone trying to reach Cason Kurowski and his family at night in their home outside Denver needs to remember one thing.

Unlike most high-school juniors, Kurowski doesn't keep his smartphone within an arm's length of his pillow. In fact, the whole family leaves mobile phones downstairs at night, including his parents.

"It's amazing how much it helps me get a better night's sleep, since my phone isn't going off all the time," he said, reached on his smartphone (#DUH) after classes at Heritage High School in Littleton, Colo.

Wait, there's more. Back in September, Kurowski and some friends made strategic -- some would say radical -- tech changes after the news of two teen suicides, in two days, at area schools. Some students in this circle were friends with a Heritage student who committed suicide last year.

After several planning sessions, they launched and urged friends to delete four specific apps -- Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter -- from their phones for a month. The goal, Kurowski explained, was to stop "hiding behind screens. … We wanted to try spending more time face to face, instead of just looking at phones."

The project grew through word of mouth, calls, emails, texts and, ironically, social media. Local news coverage helped spread this slogan: "Don't post a story. Live one." Students started planning informal gatherings to cook, play games, go hiking or just hang out.

At some point, their work caught the eye of someone whose support could help take the movement to another level -- the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week's rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.

The Bee headline proclaimed: "Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump."

The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: "We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. … Amen!"

That's fake news, of course.

The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

"It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we've known in the past," said Francis Beckwith, after watching the "America At The Crossroads" event online.

"Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. … But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. … Maybe they realize that there's no persuading going on in America, right now. People are just preaching to their choirs."