16 Good Starts On Religion Stories in 2016

The religion beat has a reputation for causing trouble. Readers are especially sensitive to mistakes and vocal about their displeasure, which makes it tempting to avoid religion altogether. 

Year in and year out important and fascinating religion stories are lost to "mainstream" audiences this way.

But worthy religion stories do find their way out into the open every year. These reports are rarely the final word. There is always more to be said about the big religion stories of the day - additional angles, implications, and questions for follow up.

TMP asked our leaders and global network for some of the "good starts" they've seen on stories from the world of religion in 2016 that deserve journalists' attention again in 2017.


1/16: The rise of Hindu nationalism in India has put Muslims and Christians in that country on the defense. This story of a Muslim man allegedly attacked by a Hindu mob for eating a cow, was met with silence by India's Hindu leaders, for example. The problems of inter-religious conflict provoked by Hindu nationalism in the world's largest democracy merits more critical coverage. International media have more freedom to work on this issue than local reporters due to cultural taboos around religion and proselytism. 
2/16: Famously secular Europeans are reclaiming a religious identity, including media personalities. Two high-ranking journalists "came out" as Christians in the pages of their news organizations this year. The UK's Tim Holland spoke out in the New Statesman about being "thoroughly and proudly Christian," and Germany's Daniel Böcking did something similar in BILD. What are the implications for European media as the religious preferences of reporters start to surface? 

3/16: Few journalists noticed that French citizens were more offended by the murder of priest Fr. Jaques Hamel, whom Islamists attacked as he offered communion, than even the mass murders on Bastille Day. Hamel's murder caused portions of France's secularized population to begin identifying again as Catholic. Islamist attacks in Europe have Germans identifying publicly as Christian again, as well. Journalists should pay attention to the ways that global terrorism motivates average citizens to reclaim their lapsed faith.

4/16: The religious shifts in Latin America are a growing story. Catholicism is in retreat across the continent in the face of evangelical expansion. This is coupled with a religious resurgence in the region's most secular country, Uruguay, where leaders are now lamenting its "de-Christianization." What will Latin America look like as 500 years of religious tradition begins to crumble? 

5/16: The historic Eastern Orthodox synod in Crete, which took place June 16-27 and assembled 400 bishops representing 300 million Orthodox believers caught some journalists' attention. This was the first such gathering since the 1053 schism that split the Eastern and Western churches. The Catholic Church even sent official observers as a sign of solidarity. We see a need for more coverage of the warming relations between the Eastern and Western churches. 

6/16: The deaths of prominent shapers of US evangelical culture from the 1970's -1990's offer great stories on and insights into this influential network. Deaths in 2016 included Jack Chick, known for his cartoon tracts that "made witnessing easy." Tim LaHaye, author of the best-selling Left Behind series, and Phyllis Shlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, also passed away with little notice from non-religious media. The generation of culture-war leaders is aging, and stories of their passing will come again soon. Done well, they can be a means of building trust in secular media among religious people. 

7/16: There was a flurry of coverage after a headscarf-wearing professor at the evangelical Wheaton College (USA) was sanctioned for claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The story was covered mostly from a political angle rather than as a theological or free-association problem. There will be many more chances for journalists to deepen the coverage as Christian universities contend with the changing demographics in the US. 

8/16: A Buzzfeed journalist was roundly and deservedly criticized for what was essentially a hit piece on a Christian celebrity couple. Buzzfeed painted HGTV's popular hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines as bigots because they attend a church whose pastor who takes a conservative position on homosexuality. Even a gay writer came to the defense of the "Fixer Upper" couple, saying the attacks were faulty and counterproductive. Journalists will earn respect from religious people when they provide context and balance when should not be the story.  
9/16: In Indonesia, there have been uprisings against Jakarta's Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who is a Christian. Ahok is facing a trial on allegations of blasphemy for criticizing the Quran. The story could be framed as a simple religious conflict. Instead, journalists might view it as a test of the liberal and tolerant values in the world's most stable and populous Muslim democracy.

10/16: Gov. Purnama's ongoing ordeal also holds good and untold stories about the deep support for a peaceful "third way" Islam in Indonesia. Established Muslim organizations there work to resist radicalization, and political leaders oppose strident opposition to minority religions. Is Indonesia just an outlier? How might the country serve as a model for other Muslim nations in integrating religious minorities? 

11/16: The conflict in South Sudan has largely been ignored by media, which has a pattern of forgetting about Africa. The crisis there offers religious angles and stories, like the plight of two Christian pastors freed in June 2016 after spending two dismal years in prison facing the death penalty for "offending Islamic beliefs." Religious conflict will make the country's path uncertain once again in 2017. 

12/16: The shocking story that World Vision staff funneled up to (US)$50 million to Hamas came and went too quickly. In arresting the head of World Vision's Gaza Strip operations, Israeli officials charged that the funds helped Hamas build tunnels and launch attacks. Coverage of the relationship between international aid agencies and militants deserves critical investigation in 2017. 

13/16: Evangelical leaders' public endorsements or condemnations of Donald Trump caused angst across the spectrum that will have fallout into 2017. Radio host Eric Metaxas took withering criticism when he compared Donald Trump favorably to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Russel Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public-policy arm, is now under fire for his steady and vocal criticism of Trump. How will evangelical elites align themselves with or against the Trump agenda in the coming year? And at what cost? What does this imply for the unity of denominations? 

14/16: The Obama administration's decision to allow the UN's condemnation of Israeli settlements to pass presents uncomfortable questions about the direction of US policy and unspoken religious preferences. What are the religious undertones to this unprecedented shift in support for Israel? The religious aspects of US foreign policy under Donald Trump deserve media attention in the coming year.    

15/16 Attacks on Egypt's Copts have been increasing in number and ferocity in recent years, including the attack on a gathering of women and girls who were worshipping in St. Mark's cathedral (which we have written about at TMP). There have been dozens of churches burned and Copts killed since Mubarak was pushed out in 2009. It is likely that Egypt will endure violence again in 2017, and journalists should mindful of the complexities there. 

16/16: After the election of Donald Trump, the editor of the New York Times told National Public Radio that, among other things, “we don’t get religion.” This confession drew much analysis from conservatives and Christians of all types. Media must be more self-reflective in 2017 about whether they "get" religion, and what to do if they do not. Stories like that validate our work here at TMP and over at GetReligion, but we hope journalists will focus on this big blind spot in 2017 in order to build readers' trust again.

Rich Potts