Lists of significant religious developments vary

Sunday, May 23, 1999

Does religion still help shape world events? Or is religion something that mattered in the distant past but no longer influences the direction of history and society?

These questions were first prompted by the Newseum's list of 100 top “Stories of the Century” released several months ago. Religion was conspicuous by its absence.

When the list appeared, I asked readers to fill in the gaps by nominating the top 10 religious developments of the 20th century that have had the most impact on the United States and the world.

The results?

Readers who have responded thus far haven't agreed on very much.

A number of readers focused (with disfavor) on new developments within Christianity — the ordination of women, for example, or the acceptance of homosexuality by some denominations.

Other readers mentioned specific ministries — notably Billy Graham's — and such innovations in ministry as televangelism.

While some frequently mentioned events — the “school-prayer” decisions, Roe v. Wade — are developments more legal than religious in nature, they clearly carry important implications for many religious people.

One reader nominated only a single event. Citing biblical evidence, she claims that Jesus Christ began to rule “as king of God's heavenly government” in the fall of 1914 and thus will soon rule “over the entire earth.” If correct, of course, this will certainly qualify as the top religious development of the century. Since we have no way of confirming this (except by faith), we'll have to wait and see if, indeed, these are the “last days.”

A number of other readers also appealed to biblical authority, a reminder that many Americans view history through a religious, rather than secular, lens.

Other nominees included liberation theology and its impact on Latin American revolutions, the publication of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy and the growth of the Mormon church.

Since there's no consensus to report (not even close), I'll re-ignite the discussion by offering my own suggestions for the list and inviting your responses.

Here are my nominees for the 10 top religious developments of the 20th century that have had the greatest impact on America and the world — for better and for worse:

  1. The Nazi Holocaust in Europe. (While not strictly a “religious development,” this was an event of such enormity for the Jewish people and for all of humankind that it has shaped, among other things, much religious life and thinking in the second half of this century.)
  2. The dominance of the scientific worldview in the West. (For most of history the governing worldviews have been religious, but over the last several centuries in the Western world, modern science has come to provide the dominant worldview of our civilization.)
  3. The Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. (While the Council has most directly affected the lives of the world's one billion Roman Catholics, it has also had widespread implications for relations among religions, for religious liberty and for much else of religious importance to the rest of the world's population.)
  4. The civil rights movement in the United States. (This was — and is — a political movement born largely in the African-American churches and supported by many Jewish and Christian groups.)
  5. The emergence of Islam as a major force in the world community. (Islam is the dominant faith in nearly 50 nations; the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has shaped events in Iran, the Middle East, northern Africa and elsewhere.)
  6. The nonviolent resistance movement led by Mohandas Gandhi. (Based on Eastern and Western religious ideas, Gandhi's movement liberated India and influenced the tactics and philosophy of Martin Luther King as well as others around the world.)
  7. Expanding religious pluralism in the United States. (The emergence of new religious movements and the growth of world religions such as Islam and Buddhism in America has altered the landscape of our nation. This has led to what some historians have called “the second disestablishment” of Protestantism in this country.)
  8. The downfall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc nations. (No development in the 20th century has done more to inspire religious revival than the defeat of Soviet-style communism, an ideology dedicated to the destruction of religious faith.)
  9. The founding of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. (This event has powerful political and religious significance for millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims.)
  10. The involvement of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in American political life. (From activist groups such as the Christian Coalition to the pro-life movement, conservative Christians have had a major impact on public-policy debates in the United States.)

Now back to you. How does your list compare to mine? Let me know where you agree or disagree — and what you feel is missing entirely.