RNS Reporters on the Big Religion Stories They Expect to Cover in 2023
January 3, 2023
(RNS) — From the overturning of Roe v. Wade to the slow schism of the United Methodist Church to the cataclysmic face-off between the Russian and Ukrainian branches of the Orthodox Church, 2022 saw major upheavals within faith institutions.
As RNS reporters look ahead to 2023, they expect, on the whole, to cover the fallout of these shifts, including the continued effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising influence of Christian nationalism. They also predict the emergence of new and experimental forms of spirituality — hello, psychedelics — as the religious landscape in America continues to shift toward disaffiliation and religious pluralism.
Adelle M. Banks
I’m interested in what Christian groups, particularly evangelical ones like the Southern Baptist Convention, and their leaders may do about matters of race going forward, especially as they work to do more on abuse. What will plans on race relations look like and will they come to pass even as the denomination’s leaders take next steps on addressing sexual abuse?
I also look forward to following continued research on the effects COVID-19 has had on congregational life, especially adaptations it caused in 2020 that remain three years later. What changes have been made that are now irreversible?
There are so many stories we write and never circle back to discover what has happened since we first reported on them. I hope to check on some enduring stories to see what’s new in 2023.
In 2023, I’m hoping to take a deeper dive into two kinds of change — one environmental, the other religious.
On the environmental side, I’m hoping to look at the ways fossil fuel has funded American religion and the difficulties in unwinding those connections, which date back to the earlier days of the oil industry.
On the religious side, I plan to follow how congregations and faith communities are adapting to the changing world around them and the decline of organized religion in America.
I’m also hoping, perhaps in vain, that religious leaders will behave themselves in the next year so we have less misconduct to report on.
2022 may go down as the year antisemitism made a full-throttle return to U.S. public life. But antisemitism has always existed beneath the surface, and in 2023, I will look at whether this is a passing fad or the beginning of a more ominous period for American Jews.
Israel just formed the most right-wing coalition government in its history. That will only add to the growing fissure between Israelis and American Jews, who tend to be far more politically liberal. This time the issues dividing Israelis and American Jews will not only center on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians but also on the nature of Jewish identity. Many of the new coalition parties refuse to recognize any but the strictest Orthodox forms of Jewish life, setting them apart from the overwhelming majority of American Jews.
I will also focus this year on how U.S. evangelicals are taking lessons from Jewish nationalism and agitating for the United States to follow with its own brand of Christian nationalism.
And finally, I expect to continue to write about tensions in churches, Christian schools and universities over LGBTQ acceptance. As in past years, I expect more fallout amid a movement that seeks to turn queer people into an inflammatory political wedge.
Emily McFarlan Miller
When it comes to mainline Christianity, it’s safe to predict I will continue covering the slow-moving schism in the United Methodist Church in 2023. The disaffiliation plan approved by the 2019 special session of the denomination’s decision-making body, the General Conference, allows churches to leave with their properties through the end of the new year. But, in the meantime, one regional annual conference already has pressed pause on disaffiliations until the next General Conference meeting in 2024, citing rampant misinformation about the denomination and the disaffiliation process. And some churches are finding other ways to leave, such as suing their annual conferences.
I’m also curious to see what denominations like the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will discover and do after creating commissions this past year to research the roles they or their predecessors played in the U.S. Indian boarding school system that separated generations of Indigenous children from their families and cultures.
Among the core stories I plan to cover in 2023 is the evolving trajectory of Christian nationalism, which took some unexpected turns in 2022. After being embraced by an array of right-wing extremists, the ideology was eventually claimed by sitting politicians such as Georgia’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. It then became a fixture of some candidates running in the midterm elections — but most of those candidates lost, making the political future of Christian nationalism unclear. Yet the multifaceted ideology’s longstanding devotees are unlikely to abandon it, and I’m hoping to trace its various Catholic and Protestant permutations — particularly as the 2024 presidential election season begins in earnest.
I’ll also be keeping an eye on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — which just elected new president Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who oversees the Archdiocese for the Military Services. And, of course, tracking the political activity of the religious left, which may work to exert pressure on allies such as the newly re-elected Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.
Pope Francis’ project for church reform will continue next year, as the synod on synodality, a large-scale consultation of Catholic faithful in parishes and dioceses around the world, enters its second stage. While the synod is scheduled to end with two summits of bishops at the Vatican in October 2023 and 2024, the upcoming year will likely bring into focus the pope’s proposed reform of church structures and the episcopacy, opening the door to greater lay involvement.
The synod has also allowed grievances and tensions already simmering in the church to emerge. Conservative factions fear Francis’ message of openness and welcoming might disrupt Catholic doctrine, while liberals are calling for female ordination and LGBTQ inclusion. These polarized tensions are poised to continue in the coming year, especially as sexual and financial scandals within the church continue to undermine the Catholic institution and empty the pews.
Despite his growing age, Pope Francis continues to be a disruptive force in the church and society and will no doubt continue to surprise Vatican observers in the coming year.
Latino evangelicals have been regarded as the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. electorate. During election years, we hear a lot about Latino voters joining the GOP and the role faith has played in that shift in certain states across the country.
I’m interested in learning more about the Latino evangelicals who don’t identify with either party and who see immigrant rights and health care and housing access as “having to do with the concept of life,” which, as Agustin Quiles recently told me, “has often been limited to the unborn baby.” Quiles is the president of Mission Talk, an organization he founded in 2016 “as a response to the lack of justice awareness” among Florida’s Latino faith community.
Do more Latino evangelicals feel the term “evangelical” has been co-opted by the right? Are more Latinos feeling pressured to leave their Pentecostal communities due to their denomination’s stance on traditional marriage and LGBTQ people? These are issues I hope to further explore.
Also, as a Southern California resident, I aim to profile more of the diverse Catholic, Pentecostal, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and atheist spaces that are represented in the greater Los Angeles area.
Psychedelics might not seem explicitly religious, but I predict these substances will lead to some of the biggest faith stories in the years ahead. I’ll be keeping my eye on clinical trials exploring the mystical side of psychedelic experiences, how new and historic houses of worship are using psychedelics as a sacrament and how people unconnected to religious groups may be turning to these substances in underground settings to enrich their spiritual lives.
I’m also keeping tabs on how theological schools are reinventing themselves. This year we saw several seminaries downsize, selling larger properties and ramping up online learning. At the same time, professional degrees gained traction while enrollment in traditional ministry degrees fell. Will seminaries pivot toward nonprofit or business leadership degrees, or become more religiously diverse?
Finally, I hope to turn my attention to persistent, but still critical, issues like how people of faith are responding to the opioid crisis, environmental instability and housing insecurity.