Black churches were burning and many pundits, politicos and preachers agreed that Southern racists -- perhaps even radical Christian conservatives -- were waging a campaign of "domestic terrorism."
"It an epidemic. It's a pattern that's very clear," said JoAnn Watson of the Center for Democratic Renewal, in an Associated Press report. At the peak of the media storm, President Clinton joined the chorus, praising the National Council of Churches and like- minded groups that were gearing up to fight the armies of the past. Meanwhile, conservative religious groups received a chilly response when they offered to help rebuild black churches.
Before long, researchers dug deeper and found that church fires were sadly commonplace and the numbers didn't seem to be rising rapidly. Also, racism rarely was the motive, even in arson cases. Most of the vandals were rebellious teens or, in a few cases, headline-hungry copycats and they hit white churches as often, or more often, than black churches.
And so the arguments began. Everyone seemed to agree this story was important, but few could agree on why. Was the national response to these church fires evidence of entrenched racism or of the power of stereotypes? Either way, members of the Religion Newswriters Association of America have selected the 1996 church fires as the year's top religion story.
The second-ranked story was the death of Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and his remarkable burst of work in his final days. In addition to his last efforts to defend the sanctity of life, he also began yet another attempt to bridge the divide between traditional and progressive Catholics in the United States. The nation's religion news specialists also selected Bernardin as the religion newsmaker of the year.
In the past, the ballot in this end-of-the-year poll has included as many as 50 events and trends. This year's list was only 14 items long and, as a result, many major events and trends were omitted -- including a burst of media interest in book of Genesis and clashes between various religious and political groups over same-sex marriages. I cast my top vote for another story that did not even appear on the ballot -- a stark series of congressional hearings focusing on religious persecution around the world.
The other eight events in the RNA's 1996 list were:
(3) Religious ministries for men continue to grow nationwide -- led by the Promise Keepers movement, with its growing emphasis on racial reconciliation.
(4) The Religious Right, especially the Christian Coalition, plays a major role in national and primary elections. Also, progressive evangelicals and other religious groups on the political left begin new efforts to form their own grassroots networks, such as the Interfaith Alliance.
(5) Speculation increases about the future of three "aging icons" of modern Christianity -- Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and evangelist Billy Graham. Each faced health crises during the year, while continuing to serve as effective public leaders.
(6) Benjamin Netanyahu is elected prime minister of Israel, with the strong support of the ultra-Orthodox and other voters who told pollsters that they feared their nation was losing its Jewish identity. This highlighted growing tensions between the Orthodox and more secular Jews in Israel and around the world.
(7) Courts strengthen the movement to legalize physician- assisted suicide, creating more clashes between religious groups.
(8) An Episcopal Church court rules that the denomination has no "core doctrine" on marriage and sex. Thus, the panel of bishops dismisses charges against retired Bishop Walter C. Righter, who had ordained a noncelibate gay man.
(9) The Southern Baptist Convention votes to consider boycotting the Walt Disney Co., inspiring the Assemblies of God and several other conservative groups to protest the policies and products one of the world's most powerful media companies.
(10) Pope John Paul II says that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. The pope also says he believes it would be more accurate to discuss "theories of evolution" and he criticizes those who deny that God played an active role in creation.