Faith was dominant theme in '04 coverage

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--At all levels of news coverage, faith was a consistent theme in reporting about the personalities, issues and events that made headlines in 2004.

Pollsters in January released research showing that religion was a dividing issue among the voting populace in this election year, and surveys conducted following the November vote proved that faith and values figured prominently in key ballot issues and office races.

According to nationwide exit polling by the National Election Pool, 22 percent of voters cited "moral values" as the most important issue in their decision on the presidential race. Of those, 79 percent chose Bush, 18 percent Kerry and 2 percent Nader. The morality issue was the top issue, surpassing the economy, 20 percent; terrorism, 19 percent; and Iraq, 15 percent.

The definition of marriage as between one man and one woman emerged as a major federal policy issue and as a key ballot initiative in 11 states.

A majority vote, 227-186, in September by the House of Representatives fell short of the two-thirds support (290) needed to pass a federal constitutional amendment protecting the traditional definition of marriage. But, in November, voters in Oregon (56-44 percent), Ohio (62-38), Michigan (59-41), Montana (66-34), North Dakota (73-27), Oklahoma (76-24), Utah (66-34), Georgia (77-23), Kentucky (75-25), Arkansas (75-25) and Mississippi (86-14) approved state amendments of varying strength -- some ban Vermont-type civil unions, some don't -- but all ban the recognition of same-sex "marriage."

Controversies about faith affected the sports and entertainment fields as well.

Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of The Christ," provoked opposition from secular reviewers and some religious leaders, while stirring a much different response from the nearly one-third of adults in America who viewed the film. Meanwhile, Jennie Finch, the standout pitcher for the U.S. Olympic softball team, led the Americans to win gold in Athens. Finch solidified her image as a national role model by rejecting a lucrative offer to pose for Playboy, unlike a number of fellow female Olympians who posed provocatively for another men's magazine. In a twist of fate combining sports and Hollywood, Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show for the Super Bowl caused a public outcry resulting in a crackdown on indecency by the Federal Communications Commission.

Prominent figures were noted for the impact of their faith.

The death of President Ronald Reagan was marked by numerous tributes that honored his deep and abiding faith as much as his contributions to the fall of the Iron Curtain of communism. Evangelist Billy Graham continued to capture the interest of a secular press that alternately covered his two crusades in 2004 from a perspective of his spiritual influence in the world, the cultural phenomenon of his lasting ministry and speculation about when he might retire. Pastor Rick Warren's book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” remained a best-seller for an astonishing second year and resulted in his multiple appearances on national television explaining the phenomenal success of its sales in terms of how people need Christ in their lives.

The stem cell debate heightened following Reagan's death from Alzheimer's disease.

The president's son, Ron Reagan, exploited his father's passing to push for increased government funding for stem cell research that destroys human embryos -- defying the late president's personal beliefs. Many in Hollywood and the scientific communities likewise used the occasion to make emotional appeals, promising possible cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other debilitating diseases despite the scientific results showing otherwise. Embryonic stem cell research has experienced multiple failures, including the worsening of Parkinson's symptoms in one human test group and a tendency to produce tumors in laboratory animals. In contrast, therapies using adult stem cells have been credited with improving or curing conditions that include paralysis, Lupus, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, Crohn's disease and diabetes.

Even the internal affairs of religious denominations captured the interests of secular news outfits.

The 2003 move by the Episcopal Church (USA) to install an open homosexual, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire has catalyzed a continuing rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion, garnering ongoing commentary in the press through 2004. The United Church of Christ gained national attention by releasing a controversial "pre-Christmas" television ad that affirmed homosexuality. The United Methodist Church, on the other hand, made news this month by revoking the credentials of a woman minister, Beth Stroud, for "practices incompatible with Christian teaching" after she announced she was participating in a homosexual relationship.

Southern Baptists made headlines in a number of ways, including a decision by the denomination to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance for liberal theology and left-leaning relationships cited by an SBC ad hoc study committee.

National controversy also surrounded a proposal made by two Southern Baptist laymen that the SBC urge members to "remove their children from ... government schools." Messengers at the annual meeting voted instead to call for increased Christian influence in America, asking Southern Baptists to "engage the culture by speaking the truth in love."

But perhaps the most intriguing secular coverage of Southern Baptist life came from the reports by major media outlets about the "Everyone Can" national campaign by SBC President Bobby Welch. Welch planned the 50-state tour to thread together a mosaic of all the different looks of Southern Baptist churches; to hear from pastors, people and denominational leaders across the nation and Canada concerning their views of Southern Baptists' needs and opportunities; and to prepare and urge all Southern Baptists to enthusiastically embrace the challenge to witness, win and baptize 1 million people during a 12-month period beginning in June 2005.

Broadcast networks CNN and PBS aired major segments that highlighted the tour, and the Associated Press wire service and print media such as the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel captured Welch's evangelistic fervor in major pieces that were picked up by other secular papers across America.

By all accounts, the issue of faith will continue to figure prominently in the press for 2005.

Both major political parties have taken note of the impact of "values voters" in the 2004 campaign and will want to capture or counter this movement in the 2006 elections. Also, some of the key moral battles for the culture are far from over -- like the definition of marriage as one man and one woman -- as lawsuits loom by opponents to ballot initiatives passed by voters and laws approved by Congress.

Mainline denominations likely will continue to make news on moral issues as they struggle to walk a tightrope tensioned by the opposing forces of scriptural instruction and social influence.

Finally, conservative evangelicals likely will be buoyed by the results of their efforts to influence the values of America in 2004 and will continue to press for gains in the coming year.


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