This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. In the last TWIG edition until the new year, the God Machine took note of E.J. Dionne Jr.’s column this week on the ways in which religion and politics didn’t cause as big a stir as in previous years.

It is 2009’s quiet story — quiet because it’s about what didn’t happen, which can be as important as what did.

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Yes, we continued to fight over gay marriage, and arguments about abortion were a feature of the health-care debate. But what’s more striking is that other issues — notably economics and the role of government — trumped culture and religion in the public square. The culture wars went into recession along with the economy.

The most important transformation occurred on the right end of politics. For now, the loudest and most activist sections of the conservative cause are not its religious voices but the mostly secular, anti-government tea party activists.

It’s important not to overstate the case. Clearly, the religious right still exists, and conservative activists still rely on matters of faith to deny gay Americans basic civil rights and to restrict American women’s reproductive rights. Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) often incoherent demands about indirect abortion funding very nearly killed health care reform.

But overall, Dionne’s analysis sounds right. The U.S. embrace of the culture war becomes more notable when the country is in otherwise fine shape. That hasn’t been the case for several years, and as a result, even Republicans are shifting their attention away from a religio-political agenda. Note, when GOP leaders started a rebranding effort, they ignored culture-war issues entirely, and when Republicans talk about trying to retake Congress, it’s not because they intend to work on school prayer and Ten Commandments displays. The religious right’s threats no longer seem to scare GOP leaders as they once did, giving the movement less influence.

It prompted Dionne to conclude that “the cultural and religious conflicts that have persisted were debated at a lower volume” this year. God bless us, everyone, indeed.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A woman jumped a barrier and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI before he delivered his traditional Christmas Day greetings, raising a new round of questions about the Vatican’s security procedures.

* Former President Jimmy Carter hopes to make amends with the Jewish community, and issued an apology this week. “We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel,” Carter said in the letter. “As I would have noted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but which is appropriate at any time of the year, I offer an Al Het [a prayer said on Yom Kippur] for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so.”

* Former Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri, who is also an ordained Episcopal priest, has created a new Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University. “Chancellor Mark Wrighton said the center, which will open in January, would seek to deepen the academic understanding of the connections between religion and politics and encourage civil discourse in which people ‘in a respectful society’ can hold different views.”

* And I was pleased to see that L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, considers “The Simpsons” acceptable entertainment. “Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong,” L’Osservatore said. “But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well.”