Annette Hestres holds her hands up in prayer during the kayak church service at Bald Eagle State Park, Pa., on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. State College Faith United Church of Christ hosted the floating service which allowed for the members to socially distance. RNS photo by Abby Drey

Year In Review: The Best Religion Journalism Of 2020

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Year In Review: The Best Religion Journalism Of 2020

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

(ANALYSIS) What a year for religion news!

From the pandemic to the election, the major headlines of 2020 had huge faith angles.

For this special year-end edition of Weekend Plug-in, I asked some of the nation’s top reporters and columnists to share the favorite religion story they wrote during 2020.

However, some of them couldn’t stop at just one. I guess I’m OK with that because it means more terrific links in the list below.

It’s a holiday week, so I didn’t catch up with everybody. But I sure appreciate my colleagues who responded. And I beg forgiveness for the excellent Godbeat work I missed in this roundup, this week and every week.

Power Up: The Year’s Best Reads

Journalists who write about religion pick their top story — or in some cases, top stories — of 2020.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post: Seeking power in Jesus’ name: Trump sparks a rise of Patriot Churches, published Oct. 26.

Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service: Stacey Abrams’ passion for voting began with her preacher parents, published Oct. 16.

Deepa Bharath, Orange County Register: Hospital chaplains fill role of surrogate family members during times of isolation, depression, death, published July 12.

Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post: These Mormon twins worked together on an IRS whistleblower complaint over the church’s billions — and it tore them apart, published Jan. 16.

Katherine Burgess, Memphis Commercial Appeal:Family of Tennessee death row inmate awaits ‘miracle’ as 11th hour DNA test underway, published Oct. 20.

Meagan Clark, Religion Unplugged:Evangelical Ph.D. student explains why Christians should care about climate change, published April 24.

Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News:Five years ago, Utah passed landmark legislation on LGBTQ and religious rights. Why didn’t other states follow its lead?, published March 11.

Paul Glader, Religion Unplugged: God and guns: Why American churchgoers are packing heat, published June 8.

Emma Green, The Atlantic: The Temptation of Kayleigh McEnany: How an ardent defender of faith — and Donald Trump — came to think of the press as her enemy, published June 25.

Luis Andres Henao, The Associated Press: Stabbings, shootings, assaults weigh on U.S. Jewish youth, published Jan. 8; Faith before basketball for Yeshiva University champions, published March 1; and Pandemic, loss unite two rural pastors around faith, published Dec. 9.

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times: As the coronavirus spreads in Florida, a priest struggles to reach his flock, published March 3; In a city scarred by the coronavirus, a priest revives a nervous parish, published Aug. 7; and The pastor thought Trump was ‘evil.’ So he quit his conservative church, published Oct. 29.

Bud Kennedy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Greg Abbott praises church victim: ‘Only God knows’ who’s alive because of Rich White, published Jan. 3.

Sam Kestenbaum, New York Times: Inside the fringe Japanese religion that claims it can cure COVID-19, published April 16.

Clemente Lisi, Religion Unplugged: Ignoring Kobe Bryant’s Catholic faith results in incomplete look at his life, published Jan. 27;5 Jesus movies you should watch this Easter, published April 4; and 5 religious sites you should visit virtually while you’re stuck at home, published April 7.

Ian Lovett, Wall Street Journal: ‘It’s like I got kicked out of my family.’ Churches struggle with mental health in the ranks, published Jan. 20; and The Mormon church amassed $100 billion. It was the best-kept secret in the investment world, published Feb. 8.

Terry Mattingly, nationally syndicated “On Religion” columnist for the Universal Syndicate: Thanksgiving 2020: Prayers from Russian Gulag ring true during COVID pandemic, published Dec. 8.

Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service: Package of stories from Canada (here, here and here) and ‘Kayak Church’ gathers Pennsylvania church in person — and on the water — amid pandemic, published Sept. 4.

Richard Ostling, retired Associated Press and Time magazine religion writer: What does Islam teach about seizing Christian churches to become mosques?, published Aug. 14.

Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today: George Floyd left a Gospel legacy in Houston, published May 28.

Daniel Silliman, Christianity Today: Ravi Zacharias’s ministry investigates claims of sexual misconduct at spas, published Sept. 29; and Sign language Bible complete after 39 years: Translation was led by deaf people trained in the biblical languages, published Sept. 21.

Bob Smietana, Religion News Service: ‘Reluctant cultist’ survives an end times cult turned pet rescue group to find his own faith, published Oct. 14; and White Christian America built a faith-based safety net. What happens when it’s gone?, published Oct. 26.

Menachem Wecker, Washington Post Magazine: The Museum of the Bible is winning over some of its biggest critics: Jewish scholars, published June 1.

Christopher White, National Catholic Reporter: How Joe Biden’s Catholic roots have shaped his public life, published July 30.

Kimberly Winston, Religion Unplugged:Meet the Belgian Buddhist training entrepreneurs, published Oct. 9. (Winston also mentioned her “Life Every Voice” piece on the song considered the Black national anthem, broadcast June 19 on Interfaith Voices.)

More Top Reads of 2020

Besides the favorites above, these are some of the religion stories that stood out to me.

The Bible that oozed oil:A small Georgia town, a prophecy about Donald Trump and the story of how a miracle fell apart. (Ruth Graham, Slate)


The road to Bloody Sunday began 30 miles away:What happened in Marion, Alabama, would send hundreds of people to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights history was made. (Gary Fields, Associated Press)

In Ohio, the Amish take on the coronavirus:A famously traditional community mobilizes to help hospitals with medical supplies, even as it struggles with reconciling its communal way of life with the dictates of social distancing. (Elizabeth Williamson, New York Times)

Closed houses of worship served during 1918 flu pandemic: A faded, single-spaced letter from that fall a century ago has a jolting immediacy to readers today. (Peter Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

A cough. An X-ray. A ventilator:Bishop Steve Wood battles coronavirus and lives to tell. (Jennifer Berry Hawes, The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C.)


Nuns vs. the coronavirus:At a Catholic nursing home in Delaware, one-fifth of residents have died. The nuns who run the facility are grappling with their calling. (Emma Green, The Atlantic)

A pastor’s life depends on a coronavirus vaccine: Now he faces skeptics in his church. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post)

The religious roots of Trump’s magical thinking on coronavirus:Long ago, his biographers say, the president learned how to craft his own version of reality, a lesson he learned in an unlikely place: a church. (Daniel Burke, CNN)

The last anointing:When Catholic priests offer the ritual known as last rites to people dying of the coronavirus. (Elizabeth Dias, New York Times)

The deacon’s death from COVID-19 was heartbreaking:Losing his body was a nightmare. (Michael M. Phillips, Wall Street Journal)


He prays for Chicago as violence takes children’s lives:A 53-year-old street preacher finds a calling consoling the families of victims of gun violence. (Kurtis Lee, Los Angeles Times)

After Hurricane Dorian, a layup helped the Bahamas rebuild:The basketball shot won a game — and rebuilt a home, rebuilt a school and rebuilt a church, all of it directly impacting the lives of hundreds of Bahamians. (Tim Reynolds, Associated Press)

‘They loved her’: Meet Oklahoma church lady Jeanise Jones, the “moral compass” and breakout star of “Borat 2.” (Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman)

The rise and fall of Carl Lentz:Behind the scenes of the Hillsong Church celebrity pastor’s downfall. (Ruth Graham, New York Times)

‘It hit us like a ton of bricks’: Undocumented immigrants and churches that give them sanctuary face breaking points. (Jeff Gammage, Philadelphia Inquirer)

The songs and Scriptures of George Floyd’s Houston funeral: His final memorial echoed biblical themes of justice accompanied by the “full soundscape of gospel history.” (Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today)

Joe Biden’s Catholic politics are complicated, but deeply American:Biden simultaneously keeps his faith at a distance and as close as possible. (Jack Jenkins, Religion News Service)

Southern Baptists confront stain of racism, slaveholding past: But for some it’s not enough. (Holly Meyer, The Tennessean)

A prophet in his own city: Jacob Kornbluh, the Hasidic reporter standing up for social-distancing. (Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, The Forward)

Megachurch pastor John Ortberg kept a family member’s attraction to children secret:Then his son blew the whistle. (Bob Smietana, Religion News Service)

Washington’s ‘Church of Presidents’ etched in history again: Trump’s church photo op puts St. John’s Episcopal Church in the spotlight. (Elana Schor, Associated Press)

The most American religion:An insider’s perspective at the bicentennial of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (McKay Coppins, The Atlantic)

Bob Gibson was blessed by the friendship of a preacher and fantasy camp catcher: The Hall of Fame pitcher’s death drew attention to the unlikely connection. (Benjamin Hochman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Inside The Godbeat: Behind The Bylines

In the favorites above, both the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein and the Wall Street Journal’s Ian Lovett highlighted stories related to the $100 billion investment fund amassed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Religion Unplugged’s own Paul Glader played a crucial role in breaking that story late last year. His coverage earned awards from the Religion News Association and the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and was a finalist for an Editor & Publisher EPPY Award for best business reporting.

For the latest, check out Glader’s piece published last week on “A slightly more transparent LDS Church one year after news of a $100 billion fund.”

Charging Station: In Case You Missed It

Here is where you can catch up on recent news and opinions from Religion Unplugged.

Stay home or go to church? Believers face tough choices this Christmas (by Terry Mattingly)

Local elections in Kashmir show strong opposition to Modi (by Zaffar Iqbal)

‘The Farmer And The Belle’ (mostly) succeeds in blending Christmas and faith-based genres (by Joseph Holmes)

International court says it can’t investigate crimes against Uyghurs in China (by Ewelina U. Ochab)

Islamic militias are protecting churches in Indonesia (by Paul Marshall)

The Christchurch report shows the new face of terror (by Dr. Robert Carle)

BibleGateway site shares most searched words and Scriptures in 2020 (by Richard Ostling)

Is this the way? ‘The Mandalorian’ questions religious tradition (by Jillian Cheney)

How will Catholic issues shape news coverage under President Biden? (by Clemente Lisi)

The Final Plug

Speaking of journalists who can’t stop at just one favorite story, here’s a shameless plug for a few of my own.

At the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, I caught up with a victim’s mother whom I first interviewed for The Oklahoman in 1995. And I wrote a retrospective piece for The Associated Press on how a prayer service four days after the bombing brought hope to a shaken America.

I also covered tornadoes, racial justice, a church shooting aftermath and, of course, COVID-19.

Next week, we’ll focus on Religion Unplugged’s most popular — and most unsung — stories of 2020.

For now, I’ll end with this: Merry Christmas!

Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.

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