New year, new stories: What to watch in 2015

It’s a new year and time to turn the page and write about what’s hot in 2015. ReligionLink emailed some of its in-the-know sources and asked, “What should religion reporters keep their eyes on in 2015?” Some of the answers will be no surprise — Pope Francis is coming! Others may be under the religion radar for many — a new Jewish prayer book in time for the High Holy Days. And there are some familiar issues here — gay marriage, young evangelicals and religious exemptions, among them. As always, there are new angles to examine, new sources to contact. Below are some of the best answers, with selected background and sources from our archives.

The man with the pointy hat is coming!

Pope Francis is making his first official visit to the United States in September, with planned stops in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and New York City, where he will address the United Nations. He is also expected to issue an encyclical, or letter, on the environment in March. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at America magazine, says the encyclical and the visit should yield a wealth of stories. “Watch the Pope,” he says. “It’s clear that he’s already a Pope of Surprises but next year may be even more surprising. The Synod of Bishops on the Family, which discussed many critical issues (on the family, sexuality and other moral issues) will conclude next fall, which means the Pope will have to write a sort of summary of the meeting. But the Pope may take his summary (called an ‘apostolic exhortation’) further than what the Synod has discussed. We’ll see.” 

Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute says the changing demographics of the Catholic Church should yield a number of important religion stories in the coming year. “As the numbers of non-Hispanic white Catholics are shrinking due to the twin engines of religious switching (including switching to no religious affiliation) and aging, and the numbers of Latino Catholics are growing due to immigration patterns and higher birth rates, the center of gravity is shifting considerably,” Jones says. “These changes on the ground, combined with Pope Francis’s reforms from the top and visit to the U.S. in the fall shake up a lot of conventional wisdom about who Catholics are and what issues they care about. “


  • Read a Jan. 3, 2015, essay by Robert P. George in First Things about the coming papal encyclical on the environment and how it may surprise — or disappoint.
  • Read a Dec. 23, 2014, story by John Allen Jr. writing for Crux about the pope’s packed year in 2015.
  • Read an undated essay by Thomas Peters in Catholic Vote critical of the expected encyclical.


At the intersection of church and state

First Amendment experts say religious exemptions and religious refusals will be the issues to watch in 2015, especially where the expansion of rights for LGBT people are concerned. “Although this has been a fractious debate for some years now, a ruling from SCOTUS on same-sex marriage will lead to new statehouse battles, especially in red states (however the Court rules),” says Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute. “And the fight over ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) will heat up again in Congress in anticipation of the 2016 elections.”

Rob Boston, communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, picked the same issue. “As same-sex marriage spreads in the states, we are seeing Religious Right groups trying to implement their back-up plan: They insist that for-profit businesses, taxpayer-funded non-profit groups and even government employees should have the right to refuse to serve LGBT people,” he says, citing previous cases involving wedding businesses that refused to work on gay weddings. Look for more challenges in 2015, as well as rulings from state and federal courts and activity in state legislatures and Congress. “Does religious freedom (or, more accurately, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) grant such refusals?” Boston asks. “In light of the Hobby Lobby ruling, some Religious Right legal groups are clearly interested in pushing the envelope. At the same time, LGBT groups, advocates of church-state separation and civil-rights organizations are concerned about giving anyone the right to override public accommodation laws and refuse service to an entire class of people. The stage is set for an epic showdown.”

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, agrees. “One big issue is the need to balance the tension between accommodating the free exercise of religion with enforcing anti-discrimination principles,” he says. “How do we protect the religious freedom of citizen A without prejudicing citizen B?”

Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, also agrees. Religious liberty is “the new culture war,” and it will heat up as 2016 approaches. “As with the ‘old’ culture war, the terminology is part of the battle,” Cooperman says. “People will disagree on whether issues like the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act should be framed as a matter of religious liberty. So reporters may want to pay attention both to the labels and to the substantive disagreements that underlie them.”


  • Read a Dec. 31, 2014, Religion Dispatches article about religious exemption issues to watch in 2015, dealing with contraception, marriage equality and corporate rights.
  • Read a June 20, 2014, story in The Nation about religious exemption cases made under ENDA that effect LGBT people.
  • Religious Freedom Restoration Act Perils is a website maintained by Yeshiva University law professor Marci A. Hamilton that monitors RFRA challenges by state.


Young evangelicals: How much of a political influence will they be?

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says keep tabs on younger evangelicals as they mobilize for the 2016 election. “Younger evangelicals — contra the stereotype — are not more liberal than their parents or grandparents,” Moore says. “They’re just as pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family. The new evangelicals are more theologically driven, more gospel focused, and less strident in their engagement than many of the older networks.” In advance of the next presidential election, “Evangelicals will be concerned about the issues of abortion and marriage. They will also be highlighting the question of religious liberty, both at home and abroad. After the past several years of freedom of conscience violations from the HHS contraceptive mandate on down, a 5-4 decision in the Hobby Lobby case, and religious minorities being murdered and imprisoned overseas, presidential candidates will not be able to avoid the question of where they stand on ensuring religious liberty for all.”

This can be seen most conspicuously in issues spinning off from the Court’s Hobby Lobby decision — for example, how to define “closely held corporations”; how may (or must) the government accommodate religiously affiliated organizations; how will the rights of Hobby Lobby employees to insurance coverage for contraception be ensured by the political branches of government.

It can also be seen in controversies surrounding same-sex marriages. Houses of worship will continue to enjoy the autonomy to decide whether to sanctify same-sex marriages, but to what extent will for-profit providers of goods and services in connection therewith — florists, photographers, bakers, wedding planners — with objections to same-sex marriage be permitted to refuse to participate or provide those goods and services?


  • Read a Sept. 6, 2014, story in The Christian Post about a poll of young evangelicals that measured their conservative and liberal leanings.
  • Read a July 9, 2014, essay by Russell Moore and Andrew Walker in the National Review arguing that young evangelicals are defying secular culture and sticking to biblical teaching.
  • Read an April 11, 2014, story in Canon & Culture about why young Christians are leaving evangelicalism.


Judaism: Going for the 'nones'

When ReligionLink asked Jewish sources what reporters should watch for in 2015, all agreed American Judaism must re-engage with those Jews who no longer identify as religious. “We are working diligently to move those who consider themselves ‘nones,’ or, as we call them, ‘uninspired,’ to becoming inspired and engaged in religious life,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Our work is to meet these people where they are with audacious hospitality.” Rabbi Steven Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, says CCAR is making an effort to produce “new texts and content that is designed to be more current and more relevant” to re-engage nonreligious Jews. Look for the first “machzor” — or primary prayer book — for Reform Judaism in decades to be published this year. What has been changed? Why? Can a prayer book alone draw back unaffiliated Jews?


  • The “Mishkan Hanefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe” is the website for the new prayer book from CCAR expected in 2015 in time for the High Holy Days.
  • Read an Oct. 1, 2013, report by the Pew Research Center titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that found 22 percent of Jews claim they have “no religion.”
  • Read an Oct. 2, 2013, story in The Jewish Week analyzing Pew Research Center data on Jews with no religious affiliation — Jewish “nones.”


  • “Reporting on Judaism” is ReligionLink’s primer on covering the Jewish community. It contains a history of the religion, a breakdown of the different branches of Judaism and a list of perennial topics, including the “who is a Jew?” debate.
  • “Judaism: Experts and organizations” is a ReligionLink edition with resources for covering all branches of Judaism in America and abroad.

Christians of color: New voices

Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, says reporters can find lots of good stories among the emerging evangelical and Protestant Christians of color — especially those who emerged in the wake of Ferguson, Mo. “Christian leaders of color have begun to cross over to what had been the mostly white evangelical mainstream,” Stetzer says. “That’s due in part to change in demographics, part to the emergence of multicultural churches, and part to the response to Ferguson. Social media like Twitter has given a platform to leaders like Derwin Gray, Bryan Loritts, Christena Cleveland, Eugene Cho, and dozens of others. And mainstream evangelical events and organizations have begun to grapple with the realities of diversity on a local and national level.”


  • Read a July 1, 2014, Christianity Today story identifying 33 up-and-coming Christian leaders under 33. All are on Twitter.
  • Read a 2013 list by the Christian Standard identifying “40 Under 40” Christian leaders to watch.


Mormons: Growing transparency?

2014 was a year of headlines for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the excommunication of Kate Kelly, official recognition of founder Joseph Smith’s polygamy and a new church-sponsored website about homosexuality. Jana Riess, a Mormon author who blogs about the church for Religion News Service, says look for a slight — but growing — trend toward more transparency from the top. “The church is trying to make small, incremental improvements in the ways it deals with dissent or doubt,” she says. “It is also trying to allow for women to have a little bit more authority while not changing doctrines about priesthood ordination. In other words, Mormon women are not going to get the priesthood in 2015, but we may continue to see small openings in ways that women do hold authority without priesthood.” And with the recent announcement by Mitt Romney that he is thinking of running for president again in 2016, stories about Mormonism and contemporary culture should be hot. Another thing to watch: The embrace of the Internet by both the church and its members is leading to new opportunities (see story below about online missionaries) as well as new challenges (to accepted Mormon history, scripture and doctrine).


  • Read a Sept. 15, 2014, Religion News Service story about a growing embrace of social media by fringe groups within the LDS church.
  • Read an April 9, 2014, Huffington Post story about a new online missionary push by the Mormon church.
  • “Meet the Mormons” is a 2014 church-sponsored documentary about the diversity within the church.


Bonus tracks

Here are a couple of additional tidbits from professional religion-watchers:

Kevin Eckstrom, editor, Religion News Service — “Look for the Episcopal Church to elect a new Episcopal Presiding Bishop,” Eckstrom says. “There’s a good chance whoever it is will be a minority. And the other story to watch is the SCOTUS case on the Muslim woman at Abercrombie & Fitch who didn’t get the job because of her hijab. Lots of folks will be watching that one. They’re supposed to hear the case sometime in the spring.”


  • The Episcopal Church’s Nominating Committee has a Facebook page; members of the nominating committee can be found here.
  • Read an Oct. 2, 2014, Huffington Post story about the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Abercrombie case.

Mark A. Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity, Duke University —  “I think I might say the ongoing discussions/conflicts/developments within local and national religious groups on the subject of gay marriage and, more generally, on accepting (or not) gay and lesbian members and leaders. Acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage has of course increased very fast in recent years, and how religious groups continue to grapple with this cultural change — ranging from wholehearted embrace to outright rejection — will, I think, be worth watching and writing about.”