For headline writers, 2004 was the year of "values voters," stormy acts of God in Florida, gay marriage rites and countless clashes between "believers" and "infidels" in Iraq, Russia, Spain and other locations around the world.
This may sound like the annual list of the top 10 news events released by the Religion Newswriters Association. But no, these events dominated the 2004 Associated Press survey of the top stories in the world -- period.
In a typical year, at least half of the world's top news stories have a strong religious element. But it was next to impossible to find a major news story in 2004 that didn't raise faith questions of one kind or another. It was just that kind of year on the religion beat.
Thus, it was no surprise that the re-election of President George W. Bush was voted No. 1 in both the AP and the RNA surveys. But the religion-news specialists decided that another story was just as hot as the White House race. The release of "The Passion of the Christ" tied for the top spot and director Mel Gibson was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, with Bush coming in second.
Truth is, these faith-based stories had much in common, according to Frank Rich of the New York Times, one of the critics on the cultural left who fueled the firestorm that enveloped Gibson and his film. This was the year of the angry fundamentalist in politics, war and pop culture, he said.
"The power of this minority within the Christian majority comes from its exaggerated claims on the Bush election victory," argued Rich, in an essay entitled "2004: The Year of 'The Passion.' "
"It is further enhanced by a news culture ... that gives the Mel Gibson wing of Christianity more say than other Christian voices and usually ignores minority religions altogether. ... In the electronic news sphere where most Americans live much of the time, anyone who refuses to engage in combat is quickly sent packing as a bore."
Cultural conservatives would, of course, disagree with Rich's claim that they were uniquely to blame for the acidic atmosphere that surrounded the White House race and the smashing box-office success of Gibson's epic exercise in sacramental symbolism and bloody special effects. After all, culture wars require at least two armies. One thing is certain: Preachers on the religious and secular left are sure to turn up the volume in 2005.
Here are the rest of the RNA poll's top 10 stories:
(3) Gay marriages are performed for the first time in Massachusetts, but the legal status of the rites remained uncertain. Religious groups mobilize on both sides, as 11 states pass amendments against the redefinition of marriage.
(4) Sen. John Kerry runs for president, setting the stage for several archbishops and bishops to warn that they will deny Communion to Catholics who openly oppose church teachings on moral issues such as abortion and gay unions. A task force of U.S. bishops leaves the decision up to local bishops.
(5) The Anglican sex wars escalate, as a Lambeth Commission report does little to close the global rift caused by last year's installation of a non-celibate gay bishop in New Hampshire. More Episcopal parishes flee, uniting with Third-World dioceses.
(6) Church-state conflicts continue to hit the U.S. Supreme Court, which upholds the Pledge of Allegiance's "under God" language and the right of the state of Washington to block scholarships used for ministerial studies.
(7) Religious groups debate the role of American troops in Iraq, while Shiite clerics emerge in leadership roles that are crucial to that war-torn nation's future.
(8) The United Methodist Church's split on homosexuality is demonstrated by the trials of two lesbian pastors. Karen Dammann is acquitted in Washington State and Beth Stroud is found guilty in Pennsylvania. Some mainline Protestant leaders publicly call for amicable splits in their denominations.
(9) The Catholic dioceses of Portland and Tucson go into bankruptcy because of sex-abuse scandals, while the largest financial settlement in such a case is reported in Orange County, Calif. Former Springfield (Mass.) Bishop Thomas Dupre became the first bishop indicted, but the statute of limitations had run out in his case.
(10) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes to pull investments from companies profiting from Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decreases somewhat from recent years.