RNA reporters on the large tales they’re anticipated to cowl in 2021
(RNS) – 2020 could finally be behind us, but when we asked Religion News Service reporters what to expect in the New Year, there was general consensus that the big stories of 2021 – even with a new presidential administration and effective vaccines – will be very similar to the big stories of the past 12 months.
But while the pandemic will continue to transform religious life and religious institutions will continue to reckon with the history of racism in America, our reporters agreed that many of the most pressing issues will center around the question, “Where are we going? Here?”
Adelle M. Banks
As 2020 ended, the leaders and grassroots of the Southern Baptist Convention faced the withdrawal of black clergy and congregations after the seminary presidents of the denomination, all knows, announced a “critical race theory,” inconsistent with a number of ideas about systemic racism with the SBC declaration of faith. What happens next could affect the future of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
This is part of a larger story about how churches will deal with racial problems under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer more than six months after the death of George Floyd. Many religious leaders and their institutions joined marches or made statements after Floyd’s death. Will they continue acting in 2021 or will they fall back into relative silence?
The growing number of mixed race churches that are attracting some white evangelicals could be the next big story in American racial relations. I am interested in learning more about why these white Christians are joining multiracial churches and what is helping these churches grow, especially as other racial justice projects have stalled.
As a North Carolina resident, I expect to cover southern evangelicalism in post-Trump America, particularly whether this group will be willing to support democratic initiatives on immigration and criminal justice reform, even if they support the liberal agenda in general reject.
My beat also includes the American Jewish community. US Jewish activism took a hard left turn in the Trump era. Many young Jews courageously and persistently called for reparations for black Americans and the abolition of US immigration and customs services while criticizing Israel harsher than their elders. Will these activists view a new, democratically led Biden government as allies or opponents?
COVID-19 challenged Catholic congregations severely, some of whom were able to adapt and quickly move to online evangelization and service, while others fell behind and watched the pews emptied.
In his year-end blessing, Pope Francis appealed for coronavirus vaccines to be made available to all and distributed 4,000 COVID-19 tests to the homeless in Rome. How the Vatican and Catholic churches around the world are going to address the pandemic and the moral and ethical issues that come with it is likely to remain the top story for the next year as well.
Francis also has a new interlocutor on many of these issues in President-elect Joe Biden, a Catholic who has expressed admiration for the Pope and cited his documents in public speeches. The two share similar views on the environment, race and immigration, and some Catholic watchers wonder how and if their synergies will feed into US politics.
Francis focused his attention on those affected by war, poverty and persecution. After not leaving the Vatican for a year – save on rare occasions – the Pope announced his plans to visit Iraq next March, foster interfaith dialogue and visit the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East. How he continues to highlight the plight of disadvantaged and undeveloped regions will no doubt be a big story for 2021.
Although the US has finally started vaccinating people against COVID-19, we are far from defeating the pandemic or its effects. These spells continued to quarrel between religious groups and government officials (and other religious individuals) over personal worship, even as faith groups work with governments and health officials to promote and spread the COVID-19 vaccine. Also, watch for legal debates between governments and religious Americans speaking out against vaccines, which could lead to high-profile litigation over the scope – and definition – of religious freedom.
Meanwhile, Biden’s relatively liberal approach to Catholicism is celebrated by many – especially liberal-minded nuns – but it could also bring him into conflict with the US Catholic hierarchy. I expect the relationship between Biden and some American bishops during his first term will be an active – and possibly heated – negotiation.
Finally, questions remain about the future of evangelical leaders, who had widespread influence and access under President Donald Trump – a dynamic that will almost certainly not repeat itself under Biden. White evangelicals are arguably more isolated from other religious Americans than ever before. 2021 will likely involve a lot of soul searching among evangelical leaders as they figure out their next steps.
Emily McFarlan Miller
Three days after 2020, a diverse group of United Methodist leaders announced a proposed Global Denomination Partition Protocol to resolve a decades-long debate about the inclusion of their LGBTQ members – whether they can marry or be ordained within the Church. However, the final settlement on this issue, which is due to be voted on at the 2020 UMC general conference, has been postponed to autumn 2021.
The Trump administration’s cuts in the number of refugees it would accept had a direct impact on programs, which are largely run by faith-based organizations and resettling refugees in the United States. Biden has already announced plans to bring refugees back to where they were. I will watch religious organizations and volunteers rebuild infrastructure to accommodate the expanded numbers.
California has become a hot spot for both the second wave of coronavirus and the battle between houses of worship and local authorities over safe worship. Rev. John MacArthur, of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, has regularly and very publicly protested health instructions and held personal services where parishioners sang and sat next to each other without masks. Even if COVID-19 is defeated in the state this year, church-state relations will be messed up for years to come.
The Latino vote was crucial in turning Arizona blue and securing Trump’s victories in Florida and Texas. Understanding the beliefs of Latinos can help explain this political divide.
In 2021, I look forward to being back in the field with reduced travel restrictions, especially to profile Latinos in California’s changing faith landscape and see their beliefs fuel their daily lives beyond politics.
In 2021, conflicts over the role of religion in public life – at work, in public order, in educational institutions, especially in relation to race, gender and sexuality – will increase.
As in political life, almost every sector of the American religious landscape is exposed to a generational change: What new religious voices and leaders will arrive, and how will older, more established religious leaders deal with new demographic and social realities? Will they share power and pass the baton on to a new generation, or will they hold onto what they already have?
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