Out with the old, in with the new. Enough about the Big Stories of 2007. Here are the big religion stories of 2008.January: Retooling his successful Iowa campaign for New Hampshire, former Baptist pastor Michael Huckabee expresses previously unnoticed interest in becoming a Congregationalist. Congregationalist Barack Obama, looking toward a tight race with Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, begins referring to his "inner Baptist." February: Controversy swirls around the choice of Ann Coulter as chief speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. Organizers of the officially nonpartisan event insist they never anticipated her prayer that Democrats be saved from the fire of hell. "But I only spoke in the spirit of Christian charity," she says.March: Two weeks before Easter, CNN broadcasts a special report on a newly unearthed "Gospel of Joseph" revealing that Jesus was a troublesome teenager. Princeton University expert on early Christianity, Elaine Pagels, hails the document for making Jesus appear more human. Other scholars complain that the ancient manuscript appears to be written with a ball-point pen.April: Pope Benedict XVI, during a brief visit to the United States, stuns reporters and commentators by indicating that he still believes in God, considers Catholic teachings to be true and opposes abortion and same-sex marriages. Consistent with four decades of findings, fresh polls of American Catholics confirm that they still revere the Pope but disagree with him about contraception, ordaining women and other issues. The newsweeklies detect a "deep divide" and "growing rift" between Rome and the American faithful.May: Dismay fills the ranks of atheists at news that Richard Dawkins has been seen lighting votive candles and fingering a rosary at a small church near Cambridge. Witnesses challenge Mr. Dawkins's initial protests that he was merely "doing research." He promises to undergo therapy and later declares himself cured of belief.June: Two hundred thousand Muslim leaders around the world issue a fatwa condemning terrorism and suicide bombing. This development is widely reported on page 37 of most newspapers, just below stories outlining the settlement of the television writers' strike.July: Fears that the Episcopal Church's consecration of an openly gay bishop might disrupt the world's Anglican bishops at the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in Canterbury are completely eclipsed by word that the Vancouver diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada intends to begin ordaining whales. Fierce debate breaks out over the meaning of five biblical passages about "the Leviathan."August: On the eve of a still undecided Republican convention, Mitt Romney's reveals that he is distantly related to a 19th-century leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Michael Huckabee counters with evidence that he shares DNA with St. Francis of Assisi. September: Angry bioethical debates among researchers and animal rights supporters break out over preliminary research suggesting that stem cells obtained by destroying baby seals might lead to medical breakthroughs. Some argue that every research possibility should be pursued. Others reply that stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos should prove sufficient.October: Once again males dominate Esquire Magazine's annual list of Best-Dressed Religious Leaders. With his trademark attire of Hawaiian shirts, the Rev. Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and best-selling author, leads the list, followed by the Dalai Llama, the Sufi Whirling Dervishes, Moktada al-Sadr, Pope Benedict and Tom Cruise.November: Voters ignore charges that all Democratic candidates are devil worshipers. Democrats deny plans to rip out Ann Coulter's heart during the Inauguration ceremony. December: On the Fox television network, neoconservative elder Norman Podhoretz and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights demand that the incoming administration take sides in what they term "World War IV Against Christmas." Mr. Podhoretz admits that he isn't really concerned about Christmas but wouldn't miss a World War IV for anything.
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.