JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Baptist journalists and observers ranked religion in the 2008 presidential election the year's biggest story for Baptists. Faith in politics played a major role in the year's news cycle, according to an annual ranking of top stories compiled by Associated Baptist Press.
North Carolina Baptists' vote to eliminate a giving option through the Convention budget to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship made the top 10 list at No. 8.
Religion stories ranged from the surprising emergence of Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee as a contender for the GOP nomination, to questions about whether Mitt Romney's Mormon faith would be a turnoff to evangelical voters, to problems for John McCain over comments by his supporter John Hagee and to the Jeremiah Wright controversy that prompted President-elect Barack Obama to divorce himself from both his former pastor and home church.
Respondents to an annual informal survey by the independent news service based in Jacksonville, Fla., ranked religion in the 2008 presidential election the year's top story.
The rest of the rankings were as follows:
2. The New Baptist Covenant Celebration. The historic gathering held Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Atlanta drew 15,000 participants from 30 Baptist conventions and organizations to hear addresses from speakers including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore. Carter, one of the meeting's principal organizers, called it the "most momentous event of my religious life."
The movement toward a unified Baptist witness in North America picks up again in 2009 with a series of regional New Baptist Covenant gatherings beginning Jan. 31 in Birmingham, Ala.
3. Election of African-American president suggests shift in religious voters. Though opposed by the Religious Right for his pro-choice views on abortion and support for civil unions for gays, Obama found strong support from African-American and Hispanic religious voters. Some observers said the election marked waning influence of the Religious Right, while others said it is too early to tell if the trend is permanent.
4. Saddleback civil forum features presidential candidates. Southern Baptist mega-church pastor and Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren made headlines in August when he invited both major presidential candidates to a Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency at his church in Lake Forest, Calif. The first time nominees of both parties appeared on the same stage, the event provided one of the most embarrassing moments of the campaign for Obama, who tried to dismiss a question about abortion by saying that answering a question about when a baby gets human rights is "above my pay grade."
McCain, meanwhile, cemented his support among Religious Right leaders previously suspicious of him for past comments critical of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
5. The economy. One writer predicted a faltering economy would top next year's ranking, but effects are already being felt in Baptist life. Two Southern Baptist seminaries — Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas — recently announced budget shortfalls, while Woman's Missionary Union in Birmingham, Ala., plans cutbacks including placing workers on a four-week unpaid furlough in 2009.
6. Baylor removes president for failure to unite campus. Trustees fired President John Lilley July 24, saying he had failed to reunite a university community divided by differences over leadership by his predecessor, Robert Sloan. Lilley, who took Baylor's helm in January 2006, ran into his own problems after denying tenure to several faculty members, despite recommendation by their departments. Outcry from alumni also forced him to back off from a proposal to replace Baylor's "BU" interlocking logo on the school's football helmets with the word "Baylor" in an attempt to push the Baptist school's brand name to a national level.
7. Georgia Baptists reject church with woman pastor. The Georgia Baptist Convention changed a policy to authorize leaders to refuse funds from First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., because it called woman as pastor.
Convention leaders said calling Julie Pennington-Russell as pastor in 2007 violated the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message doctrinal statement and rendered the historic congregation "not in harmony" with the state convention.
8. North Carolina Baptists nix plan that forwarded funds to CBF. Capping several years of challenges to a multi-track giving plan, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted Nov. 12 to end an option that allowed churches to forward money through the state convention to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and other entities unrelated to the Southern Baptist Convention. While supporters of multiple options said the system respected church autonomy, opponents said it put forth a divided witness for the state's Southern Baptists. Churches in North Carolina that want to contribute to the breakaway moderate group will in the future have to send funds directly to the CBF.
9. 'Evangelical center' forming in U.S. politics. David Gushee, a regular ABP columnist, began 2008 with a book arguing a "political center" is emerging in American's white evangelical community — one that seeks a broader moral agenda than traditional family values concerns and prefers consensus solutions to polarization between the secular left and Religious Right. Groups including the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative sought to define social problems like poverty, torture and the environment as moral issues.
Exit polls showed that religious voters want a broader agenda than opposition to abortion and gay marriage to best reflect their values, and prefer common-ground solutions like working to reduce instead of outlawing abortion.
10. Violence targets Christians in India. Baptists worldwide denounced violence targeting Christians in an overwhelmingly Hindu state in northeastern India. Religious violence is nothing new in Orissa, where in 1999 a mob burned Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons to death while they slept in a car. In November U.S. Christian leaders including Daniel Vestal of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and William Shaw of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., urged President Bush to take action against sectarian violence described as "ethnic cleansing" of religious minorities.