Religion '07: Huck's Christmas story

It was a simple commercial, with Mike Huckabee posed in front of a set of scandalously empty white bookshelves that, when framed just right beside a Christmas tree, formed a glowing cross behind the candidate.

And, lo, the former Southern Baptist pastor told the voters: "Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you've been seeing, mostly about politics? I don't blame you. At this time of year, sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is a celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and merry Christmas."

This caused a firestorm among the political elites that symbolized the year's biggest trend in religion news -- the revenge of the infamous "values voters" who, apparently, remain alive and well in church pews across the heartland.

But will the Republican Party win this "pew gap" contest again? That was the question that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 religion news stories in 2007. There were plenty of new signs that the so-called religious right exists, but that it isn't a monolith after all.

Here's how America's religion-beat specialists described the year's top story: "Evangelical voters ponder whether they will be able to support the eventual Republican candidate, as they did in 2004, because of questions about the leaders' faith and-or platform. Many say they would be reluctant to vote for Mormon Mitt Romney."

Then, in the number-two slot, was the flip side of that political coin: "Leading Democratic presidential candidates make conscious efforts to woo faith-based voters after admitting failure to do so in 2004."

The rise of Huckabee was the strongest sign that the "values voters" are still out there, but that they are not meshing well with the Republican Party establishment. The latest Southern Baptist from Hope, Ark., has been preaching a blend of conservative morality and populist economics that made him sound like an old-fashioned Bible Belt Democrat from the days before Roe v. Wade.

"The Huckabee surge represents a break with what has been standard operating procedure within the GOP for more than a generation," argued columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post, an outspoken Catholic who remains a Democrat. "The former Arkansas governor has exposed a fault line within the Republican coalition. The old religious right is dying because it subordinated the views of its followers to short-term political calculations. The white evangelical electorate is tired of taking orders from politicians who care more about protecting the wealthy than ending abortion, more about deregulation than family values."

Here is the rest of the RNA top 10 list:

(3) The Anglican wars continued, as an Episcopal Church promise to exercise restraint on homosexual issues failed to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion. Doctrinal debates about marriage and sex continued to cause tensions in other flocks as well, both Christian and Jewish.

(4) Debates about global warming increased in importance, with many oldline Protestant leaders giving the topic a high priority. Meanwhile, some evangelical leaders argued about its importance in comparison with other social and moral issues.

(5) Religious leaders on both sides of the aisle questioned what to do about illegal immigration, with some clergy daring to shelter undocumented immigrants.

(6) Thousands of Buddhist monks led a pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, which was then crushed by the government.

(7) Conservative Episcopalians kept leaving the U.S. church in order to align with traditionalist Anglican bishops in Africa and elsewhere in the global South, initiating yet another round of legal disputes about church endowment funds and property.

(8) In another round of 5-4 votes, the U.S. Supreme Court took conservative stands on three cases with religious implications: upholding a ban on partial-birth abortions, allowing public schools to establish some limits on free speech and rejecting a challenge to the government's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

(9) Transitions continued at the top of major Evangelical Protestant institutions, as symbolized by the deaths of Jerry Falwell, Rex Humbard, Ruth Bell Graham, D. James Kennedy and Tammy Faye Messner, the ex-wife of Jim Bakker.

(10) Roman Catholic leaders in the United States wrestled with the high cost of settling legal cases linked to decades of clergy sexual abuse of children and teen-agers. The price tag reached $2.1 billion, with a record $660 million settlement in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.