Pandemic’s effects on religious life, liberty named No. 1 religion story of 2020
Though the year was fraught with civil unrest, scandals and politics, COVID-19 remained as pervasive in the 2020 Religion News Association Top 10 Religion Stories and Newsmaker of the Year Poll as it was in daily public life. RNA members chose by a decisive margin the novel coronavirus’ unprecedented devastation — its countless deaths of religious leaders, laity, and followers; how it ravaged congregational finances and spurred charitable responses; how it upended religious observances and stirred legal challenges over worshiping in congregate settings — as the No. 1 religion story of the year.
Members selected George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as the Religion Newsmakers of 2020. Their killings by police officers sparked worldwide protests against racial injustice and turned them into iconic images of the Black Lives Matter movement, which received passionate support from many religious activists.
President-elect Joe Biden, who will become the second Catholic president in U.S. history when he is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021, was the newsmaker runner-up.
Members of the Religion News Association, a 71-year-old trade association for reporters who cover religion in the news media, have voted on the annual religion story poll for decades. A complete list of the stories and newsmakers they ranked appears below.
TOP 10 RELIGION STORIES OF THE YEAR
1) COVID-19 pandemic claims lives of many religious leaders and laity, upends death rituals, ravages congregational finances, spurs charitable responses, forces religious observances to cancel or go online and stirs legal fights over worship shutdowns.
2) Worldwide protests and racial reckonings follow police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, with many faith-based activists and groups taking part. Many religious institutions undergo soul-searching over racially fraught legacies.
3) Joe Biden is second Catholic elected president with big assists from the religious left — especially Black Christians — and secular voters. Biden cites Catholic social doctrine for many policy views, but bishops decry his support for legal abortion.
4) Amy Coney Barrett, whose background in Catholic and charismatic circles draws scrutiny, joins an expanded conservative majority on the Supreme Court after replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dies at 87 and whose liberal Jewish values shaped her views.
5) Police, using tear gas, drive anti-racism protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, clearing way for President Trump to pose for a controversial photo with a Bible at historic St. John’s Church. Episcopal, other faith leaders express outrage.
6) White evangelicals and other religious conservatives again vote overwhelmingly for President Trump, despite some vocal dissent. Protestants fuel his gains among Hispanic voters. Some religious supporters echo his denials of the election results.
7) Dozens of nations decry what they term widespread human-rights abuses by China against predominately Muslim Uighurs and others in Xinjiang region, many in detention camps. New U.S. law authorizes sanctions against Chinese officials deemed complicit.
8) A Vatican investigation into defrocked ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick found that bishops, cardinals and popes failed to heed reports of his sexual misconduct. Debate ensues over the legacy of sainted Pope John Paul II, who promoted him to cardinal.
9) Pandemic-related limits on worship gatherings spur protests and defiance by Hasidic Jewish groups and evangelicals led by pastor John MacArthur and musician Sean Feucht. Supreme Court backs Catholic and Jewish groups’ challenge to New York’s limits.
10) Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. resigns amid controversies including a risqué photo and an alleged sex scandal. Claims of sexual misconduct also made against late evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias and Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz.
RELIGION NEWSMAKERS OF THE YEAR
George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose killings by police officers set off worldwide protests against racial injustice and turned them into iconic images of the Black Lives Matter movement, supported by many religious activists.
OTHER NEWSMAKERS ON THE BALLOT, BY VOTING RANK
Joe Biden, elected the second Catholic president in U.S. history — a frequent Mass attendee who draws on church social teachings for many policy views but whose support for legal abortion put him in conflict with bishops.
Pope Francis, who presented an indelible image of pandemic-era ministry with blessings in an empty St. Peter’s Square; released an unprecedented report on the Theodore McCarrick scandal; and backed same-sex civil unions in a controversial interview.
President Donald Trump, who retained support from white evangelicals and other religious conservatives, named a third Christian conservative to the Supreme Court and had a controversial photo at a church after officers cleared protesters with tear gas.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic who immediately made her presence felt on a growing Supreme Court conservative majority; and the justice she replaced, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose views were steeped in liberal Jewish values.
Jerry Falwell Jr., who resigned amid scandalous allegations as president of Liberty University, the large and influential conservative Christian university founded by his evangelist father.
Kamala Harris, elected the first woman vice-president and drawing on a mix of religious influences — her childhood exposure to Christianity and Hinduism, her marriage to a Jewish man and her attendance at a Black Baptist church.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, named by Pope Francis as the first African-American cardinal, and who denounced a Catholic shrine’s hosting President Trump a day after officers tear-gassed protesters in advance of a photo at another church.
Pentecostal pastor Paula White-Cain and evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, whose vocal support for President Trump extends to waging what they term a spiritual battle in denying and challenging his electoral defeat.
Sean Feucht, a California-based Christian rocker and Republican office-seeker who dramatized evangelical opposition to public-health measures during the pandemic by holding crowded outdoor worship “protests” and concerts around the country.
Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.