List of top stories overlooks religion

Sunday, March 7, 1999

Americans love lists. The closer we get to the end of the century — and the millennium — the more we'll be listing the “best,” “worst,” and “most influential.”

One of the most irresistible lists was just released by the Newseum in Arlington, Va., where a panel of 67 journalists and scholars identified the 100 top “Stories of the Century.” In first place was the United States' dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender of Japan to end World War II. Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon was number 2. For the entire roster, visit the Newseum's Web site.

One of the most striking things about this list — at least to someone who follows religious developments — is that religion barely makes the cut. Only seven of the 100 stories have anything remotely to do with religious people or convictions.

Two of those involve the Holocaust: the “Kristallnacht” attack against German Jews by the Nazis in 1938 and the exposure of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and his assassination in 1968 account for two more.

The other three are: Gandhi's launch of the nonviolent movement for change in India in 1920; the 1925 trial of Tennessee teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution; and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

While all seven of these stories involve religion in some way, none of them qualifies as one of the century's significant religious developments. So where's religion?

I'm guessing that religion stories didn't make the list for at least four reasons:

  • What's vitally important within a particular religious group may have little impact on others. Two quick examples: Episcopalians might put the 1976 vote to ordain women on their list, while Christian Scientists would surely note the death of founder Mary Baker Eddy in 1910. By contrast, most of the events on the Newseum list have had a profound impact on humanity across religious and ethnic lines. The discovery of penicillin, the creation of the atomic bomb and the debut of television are a few examples.
  • An American list tends to focus on what's most significant to Americans. Religious developments often have greater impact in other parts of the world. The Newseum list, for example, cites Nixon's resignation and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. But you won't find such events as the exile of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, the Muslim-Hindu clashes in India, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, or the liberation-theology movement in Latin America.
  • Religion isn't on the radar screen of most American journalists and scholars. Although deeply important to many Americans, religion is underreported in the media and viewed with suspicion in much of higher education.
  • For most of history, the governing worldviews of civilization have been religious. But in recent centuries, especially in the West, modern science has come to provide civilization's dominant worldview. Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud all make the list, but not Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, or Pope John Paul II. Religion has lost its preeminence in the modern era.

Even though religion doesn't make the Newseum list, that doesn't mean it isn't important. For better and for worse, religion has played a significant role in shaping the lives of millions of people in the 20th century. For example, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) surely qualifies as one of the most significant stories of the century — indeed, of the last several centuries. Of course, the impact of the Council has been most profound among Roman Catholics. But the Council also has influenced the Catholic view of religious liberty and has greatly affected relations among religions throughout the world.

What else should be on the list? Babe Ruth and the Beatles make the Newseum list because of their enormous impact on popular culture. But what about the two Billys, Sunday and Graham, the most popular evangelists of their day?

Rachel Carson (the environmental movement) and Betty Friedan (the modern women's rights movement) are on the list. But what about the Social Gospel movement in the United States in the early part of the century? The rise of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism? The election of Pope John Paul II? Religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, India, Sri Lanka, or elsewhere?

Now for the fun part: Send me your nominations for the top 10 religious developments of the past 100 years that have had the most impact on America and the world. In the next few weeks, I'll make yet another list — and then give you a chance to tell me where I went wrong.