Year in review, pt. 1

It’s been an eventful year, both for U.S. organized religion generally, and for Unitarian Universalism in particular. In this post, I’ll start by reviewing some of the key developments in organized religion in the U.S. In a second post, I’ll review some of the explosive developments within Unitarian Universalism.

1. Culture wars and religion

Religion is right at the center of the ongoing escalation of the culture wars in the United States. And the role of religion in the culture wars has gotten more complex than ever. To try to make sense out of it all, I’ll consider some of the culture wars battlegrounds separately.


It was weird enough that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself last year and decided that abortion was not a right guaranteed under the constitution. And this year, the battle over abortion remains as weird as ever.

To my mind, the most riveting battles over abortion put religion right at the center of the fight. For example, Jewish, Muslim, and non-Christian women went to court over Indiana’s hyper-restrictive abortion ban, claiming that ban uses a Christian definition for the start of life. Based on these arguments, lower courts put a hold on the state’s abortion ban, and Indiana’s appeals court is currently hearing arguments in this legal challenge. A similar legal battle is playing out in Missouri, where Jews, liberal Christians, and Unitarian Universalists challenged that state’s abortion ban on the basis that conservative Christians are trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else.

These legal challenges are crucial because it’s clear that total abortion bans have a religious basis. Jewish teachings generally say that a fetus only attains the status of personhood at birth. Liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist teachings vary somewhat, placing the onset of personhood anywhere from second trimester to birth. As for atheists and non-religious people, it’s hard to make any generalization at all. So in the U.S., it’s the conservative Christians who claim that life begins at conception.

That’s why the battle over abortion is so weird to me. Why aren’t more people talking about this as a religious battle?


On December 7, the BBC reported that mass shootings in the U.S. continue to be on the rise. As of that date, there had been 632 mass shootings in this country — down from 690 in 2021, but way up from 223 in 2014.

Gun ownership has a very strange connection with religion in the United States. Joseph P. Slaughter, assistant professor of religion and associate director of the Center for the Study of Guns and Society at Wesleyan University (and yes, that really is his last name), teaches a course that explores how religion and firearms are intertwined in the U.S. Slaughter explains how he was moved to start teaching this course:

“One issue … sparked a question from a South Asian Christian student: Why did American evangelicals seem to have such an affinity for firearms? For example, Pew Research indicates 41% of White evangelicals own a firearm, compared with 30% of people in the U.S. overall. This unsettled the student, since they shared much of the same theology, and they wanted to know more about this connection.”

Prof. Slaughter points out that today, many politicians are explicit about connecting Christianity and gun ownership. If you only pay attention to political debates in news media and social meida, you’d be inclined to think that a core article of belief of conservative Christians is gun ownership.

However, many U.S. Christian evangelicals do not support guns, and find it bizarre that some self-proclaimed Christians actively promote gun ownership. An 2022 opinion piece from the evangelical magazine Christianity Today proclaimed “This Love of Guns: It’s Way Beyond Our Understanding.” And in a book review posted last month to the Reformed Journal website (where “Reformed” means Calvinist Christian), the reviewer says:

“When I read about God and Guns: The Bible Against Gun Culture, ed. Christopher B. Hays and C.L. Crouch (Westminster John Know, 2021), I knew I had to read it — because as a Christian I also believe, as Hays puts it early in the book, that ‘any Christianity that supports guns as a solution to social problems is not Christianity at all’.”

And it gets weirder still. Some of the same people who condemn violence against fetuses actively promote gun ownership. Since the main purpose for a handgun is to shoot other people, this appears to create a contradiction — violence is bad before you’re born, but it’s OK after you’re born. For many Americans, there is no contradiction here at all. But from a global Christian perspective, the U.S. Christian belief in gun ownership is just plain weird.

LGBTQ+ Issues and Religion

The culture wars are also heating up when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Once again, this culture wars battleground pretty clearly has a religious connection.

The big news in this area is that the pope recently announced that Roman Catholic priests can now bless same-sex couples. The pope made it clear that such blessings are not a sacrament (in the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is a sacrament). Nevertheless, this is a huge step forward for LGBTQ+ Catholics.

Also in Roman Catholic news this year: the pope removed Joseph Strickland as bishop of Tyler, Texas. Strickland was notorious for his anti-LGBTQ+ views. While the pope removed him for more general insubordination, Strickland’s removal has been seen as a small step forward for LGBTQ+ rights within Catholicism.

Elsewhere in U.S. Christianity, the United Methodists lost about on fourth of their congregations in a split that was based in part on LGBTQ+ rights. The conservative congregations, the ones who don’t support same sex marriage, left the United Methodists; the moderates and liberals remained within the denomination. The fact that more congregations didn’t leave the United Methodists is actually good news. This denominational split reveals the deepening chasm between Christians who support LGBTQ rights, and Christians who oppose LGBTQ rights.

Religion and Women

For women and religion, there was both bad news and good news.

In the bad news, this year Southern Baptists decided to take action against any Southern Baptist congregation that had women pastors. One of those congregation’s was Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church; Warren has become well-known for his book, The Purpose Driven Life. Faced with ejection from the Southern Baptist Convention, Warren himself appealed to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptists, saying in part: “I’m not asking you to agree with my church. I am asking you to act like a Southern Baptist, who have historically agreed to disagree on dozens of doctrines in order to share a common mission.” 1,212 delegates agreed with Warren, but 9,437 voted to eject Saddleback for having a woman pastor.

In the good news, the Roman Catholic Synod on Synodality, a major international meeting to discern the future of the Catholic church, allowed women as delegates. This is a truly radical move for an organization that has, up until, been notoriously sexist and excluded women from any meaningful role in setting policy. (I mean, even the Southern Baptists allow women to be delegates to their annual meeting.) However, it remains to be seen if the Roman Catholic hierarchy will make any meaningful changes to the status of women. And the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have said next to nothing about the status of women.

Culture Wars and an Emerging NRM

I continue to believe that we are watching the emergence of a New Religious Movement (NRM) in the U.S. This NRM calls itself “Christianity.” But this NRM has added beliefs in culture wars issues — gun ownership, abortion bans, anti-LGBTQ sentiments, the lesser status of women — that are not shared by all Christians.

2. Sexual Abuse and Sexual Harassment in Religion

Sexual abuse and sexual harassment in religious organizations continued to be in the news this year.

Although Catholics seem to get all the bad press, the problem extends throughout all religious groups. In December, Gregorian Bivolaru, a Romanian yoga guru, was arrested for sexual abuse. The Episcopal church has come under criticism for its extraordinarily complex procedures for reporting abuse. Billy Graham’s grandson, an evangelical Christian and a law professor who investigates abuse, said this year that if you compare the Catholic abuse crisis to what goes on within evangelical Christianity, “I think we [evangelicals] are worse.” And there were many more news stories in 2023 about organized religion and sexual abuse and/or sexual harassment.

At the same time, one or two religious groups seem to be making real progress in dealing with sexual abuse and sexual harassment. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) continues its efforts at what it calls “Ethics Accountability.” When I asked my friend the Reform rabbi about these efforts, he was inclined to be critical, until I pointed out that the URJ was doing so much more than any other religious group I know of — including the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Forgotten in much of the coverage of sex abuse in religion is that the problem is less to do with religion, and more to do with institutions. The results of one 2014 study suggest that “child sexual abuse in institutions is attributable to the nature of institutional structures and to societal assumptions about the rights of children more than to the attitudes towards sexuality of a specific religion.” Many other institutions are also subject to sexual abuse and sexual harassment, including workplaces, schools, organized sports, etc.

Nevertheless, religious groups should of course hold themselves to a higher ethical standard. Sadly, this year brought more news stories of how religious groups continue to fall short of their ideals.

3. Decline of U.S. Organized Religion

The decline in religious participation is not a simple phenomenon. Yes, fewer Americans are attending religious services. But in March, Pew Research Center found that the details are complicated:

“Asked directly whether they now attend religious services more or less often than they did before the pandemic, more Americans indicate that their attendance habits have declined than risen. But it’s a complicated picture: As of November 2022, 20% say they are attending in person less often (while 7% say they are going in person more often). On the other hand, 15% say they are participating in services virtually more often (while 5% say they are watching services online or on TV less often).”

This year, I finally got around to reading Bob Smietana’s Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters (Worthy Books, 2022). Smietana, a long-time religion reporter, goes into detail about what the decline of organized religion looks like at the local level. For example, many disaster relief services are organized through conservative Christian churches — and as participation in those churches declines, there’s really no one out there to take their place. Smietana’s book argues that the decline of U.S. religion has ramifications beyond the culture wars and the spiritual-but-religious — to use the terms o sociologists, the decline of organized religion isn’t just about belief, it’s about behavior and belonging.

This year, I’ve started to connect the decline of organized religion with other social phenomena — the decline of local news outlets, the rise of “deaths of despair,” the epidemic of isolation and loneliness, the rise of centralized online shopping (e.g., Amazon) at the expense of in-person local businesses, the decline of stable W2 employment, etc. I think what I’m seeing is a broad trend of increasing anonymity and atomization, and the decline of organized religion is merely a part of that wider social trend.

4. And More

If you want to spend more time looking at the year in religion, Religion News Service just published a list of their top religion stories for 2023. To whet your appetite, here’s their list of stories:

  1. Hamas attacks Israel
  2. Pope Francis and synodal Catholicism
  3. Mike Johnson becomes speaker of the U.S. House
  4. Southern Baptists expel key churches over women pastors
  5. California rejects caste discrimination bill
  6. Culture war heats up at the local level
  7. “Churches” [sic] try to deal with abuse
  8. The revival at Asbury University
  9. Hamline University fires a professor for showing image of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)

In part 2, I’ll review the year in Unitarian Universalism.

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