2003 in Religion: Combat and Conflict

Opposition to war, gay rights and fight over Ten Commandments are among top stories

2003 dawned with war clouds gathering over the Iraqi skies as President Bush prepared for a pre-emptive strike to dislodge Saddam Hussein against the counsel of most religious leaders.

Catholic and mainline Protestant church leaders rallied opposition to a war they said was unjust, while evangelical and some Jewish leaders stood by the White House.

”This war is wrong, it is sinful, it is killing,” said Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, before he was led away in plastic handcuffs in a March 26 protest outside the White House. ”It is against the law of God.”

Bush largely ignored the protests from the pulpits, refusing to meet with bishops from his own Methodist denomination. He only reluctantly accepted an envoy sent by Pope John Paul II before the bombs started to fall on March 19.

After the war was won, American casualties mounted and a lasting Iraqi peace seemed to slip through Bush’s fingers like so many grains of desert sand — even with the capture of Saddam. It was, war opponents say, a vindication of their own prophecies.

”The churches were right,” said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, a staunch opponent of the war. ”We always knew the U.S. could win militarily . . . but I think the churches’ instinct on the moral ground was exactly right, that winning the peace was more important than winning the war.”

At the same time, a different kind of battle — over homosexuality — erupted at home as Episcopalians elected the first openly gay bishop, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay sex, and Massachusetts’ highest court said gays should be allowed to marry.

It seems unlikely at the close of 2003 that either conflict will end quietly or that religion will surrender its place in the headlines.

”A lot of American religions are very populist religions, and what happens in American culture generally affects the churches,” said Mary Tolbert, director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry in Berkeley, Calif.

”I don’t think there’s a very clear division there.”

In June, New Hampshire Episcopalians overwhelmingly elected the openly gay Rev. V. Gene Robinson as their next bishop, a decision that was later ratified by the national church and denounced by sister Anglican churches around the world.

”This is an attack on the church of God — a satanic attack on God’s church,” Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola said after Robinson’s election. By year’s end, nine of the 38 member churches in the Anglican Communion had severed ties with the Episcopal Church over Robinson.

Issue of homosexuality

The Robinson vote, however, did not happen in isolation. Three weeks after his election, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn sodomy laws, a decision that led the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to rule in November that gay couples should have the right to civil marriage.

In July, the Vatican said there were ”absolutely no grounds” to support gay marriage and warned Catholic politicians that a vote in favor of it was ”gravely immoral.”

New Hampshire and Massachusetts had suddenly thrust the issue of homosexuality into every newspaper and living room in America, fueling a backlash among conservatives for a constitutional amendment to ”protect” traditional marriage.

”These external forces trying to shape culture are galvanizing the faith community to work even harder for those historical and traditional views that America is known for,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

There were, of course, other religion stories that topped the headlines in 2003, most notably the defiant standoff in Montgomery between former state Chief Justice Roy Moore and opponents who demanded he remove a 5,300-pound monument to the Ten Commandments.

Ten Commandments

The monument, known as ”Roy’s Rock,” was removed under federal order in August to a backroom out of public view. Moore was removed from office on Nov. 13 by a state panel for disobeying the federal order.

”It is a sad day in our country when the moral foundation of our law and the acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public view to appease a federal judge,” Moore said when the monument was hauled away.

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II celebrated a remarkable 25 years in office on Oct. 16 as history’s fourth-longest serving pontiff. Celebrations included a beatification ceremony for Mother Teresa attended by some 300,000 pilgrims and the naming of 30 new cardinals, including Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

John Paul, however, was visibly frail, worn down by Parkinson’s disease, using a movable throne and unable to deliver most of his homilies. Still, the most traveled pope in history is planning a trip — his 103rd — to Switzerland next year.

In the United States, Catholic leaders continued to wrestle with the sexual abuse crisis, even as it faded from the front pages. Newly installed Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston moved quickly to reach an $85 million settlement with 540 victims.

Church watchers now await a report in January that measures how many bishops have complied with new abuse regulations and an additional report in February on the scandal’s root causes.

”I think we’ve turned the corner,” Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Boston Globe in November. ”We’re not near the finish line, but we are making honest and sincere efforts to do what needs to be done to protect children and to be accountable for our actions.”

A look ahead

At the U.S. Supreme Court, justices agreed to hear the case of a California atheist who says the phrase ”one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. The court heard arguments in early December on whether a public scholarship can be used for theology studies. Decisions in both cases are expected in the spring.

Also expected next year is actor-director Mel Gibson’s film ”The Passion of the Christ,” scheduled for release on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. Jewish groups have criticized early versions of the $30 million film for allegedly blaming Jews for the death of Christ, a charge Gibson vehemently denies.

”To be certain, neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic,” Gibson said in June. ”Nor do I hate anybody — certainly not the Jews.”

American Jews were confronted with a sobering report in September that showed the American Jewish community growing older, having fewer children and almost half — 47 percent — marrying non-Jews. Among intermarried families, only one-third are raising their children as Jews.

”We’ve got a very strong Jewish population on the one hand, doing a lot Jewishly, then we have people that are doing very little Jewishly, if anything,” said Lorraine Blass, project manager of the National Jewish Population Survey.

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