2009 - A Year of Unintended Consequences

Kevin Eckstrom | 12/22/2009, 3:58 p.m.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa last March, he made countless pleas on behalf of the poor and the war-weary. Yet the words that got the most attention were spoken on the papal plane when he said condoms are part of the problem, not the solution, to Africa€s HIV/AIDS pandemic.

And so it was in the year of religion in 2009, when well-intended gestures of goodwill and reconciliation erupted into firestorms of controversy. Even the best-laid plans, 2009 reminded us, often carry unforeseen consequences.

€People can have good motives toward a middle position and cooperation and all of that, but it just turns out to be extremely difficult to do because our divisions are so deep-seated,€ said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

Many of the controversies revolved around a president and a pope, both of whom spark strong personal reactions.

In January, President Obama reached out to evangelicals by inviting megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation. Gay groups seethed because of Warren€s activism against same-sex marriage. When Obama offered another prayer slot to openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, conservatives detected signs of homosexual activism.

Obama was back on the hot seat in May, when he accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame as conservative Catholics blasted his support of abortion rights. What was partially intended as an olive branch to his opponents in the abortion debate soon morphed into one of the most public, and painful, debates on the essentials of American Catholic identity.

By year€s end, it was the pope€s turn again, when he offered shelter to disaffected Anglicans who could no longer abide their churches€ tolerance of homosexuality and women€s ordination. What the Vatican said was intended as a pastoral gesture quickly became a referendum on the pope€s commitment to ecumenism and Christian unity.

€We have two kinds of religion gaps€"a gap based on affiliation and identity, which seems to have diminished a good bit, and a faith-based divide based on behavior and ideology, which is much harder to bridge,€ Green said.

To be sure, some events were largely non-controversial, and indeed well-received, such as Obama€s June speech in Cairo in which he tried to recalibrate U.S. relations with Muslims at home and abroad.

€Since 9/11, the story of Islam has been that it€s a religion of war or it€s a religion of peace€"a sort of a ping pong back and forth,€ said Stephen Prothero, a scholar of American religion at Boston University. €But with Obama, he€s trying to reach out the Muslim world in a way that that€s more even-handed.€

The religious community, broadly speaking, also welcomed Obama€s executive order to end U.S.-sanctioned €enhanced interrogation techniques€ and close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Religious groups were more divided on Obama€s decision to lift Bush-era restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. Yet other stories were controversial right from the start.

The church fights over sexuality mirrored larger struggles over homosexuality in the public square, as Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage and Maine legislators approved it before voters rejected it. Efforts to legalize gay marriage in New York and New Jersey failed.

Abortion regained center stage in public policy debates, fueled in part by Obama€s Notre Dame speech, the shooting death of abortionist George Tiller in the foyer of his Kansas church, and arguments over whether to expand or limit access to abortion as part of health care reform.

U.S. Muslims were faced with growing concerns about homegrown radicalization after Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 12 fellow soldiers and a civilian at Fort Hood in Texas. Within a month, five Muslim men from Virginia who were described as €good guys€ were picked up in Pakistan on charges of trying to join an anti-American jihad.

In an overhaul of the White House€s faith-based initiative, Obama named 25 religious and community leaders to advise him on four targeted policy areas: interfaith relations, economic recovery, abortion reduction and responsible fatherhood.