What we got was basically just the opposite: the millennium was a bust, the summit was widely (fairly or not) seen as hot air, peace negotiations caused the Middle East to erupt into violence, religion remained conflicted about gays, the Democratic Party nominated the first-ever Jewish candidate for the White House, and the presidential campaign featured almost as much talk about God as about lock-boxes.
Thus cautioned about the less-than-fabulous track record of predicting, what might we forecast for the year 2001? Here are a few educated guesses about what might be significant next year for the world of faith:
Do Only Christians Go to Heaven?
Pope John Paul II received surprisingly little notice when he spoke against the notion, central to much of Protestant thinking and most of Catholic history, of salvation exclusively through Christ. "The gospel teaches us that those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes--the poor in spirit, the pure of heart, those who bear lovingly the sufferings of life--will enter God's kingdom," regardless of whether they profess Christ, the pontiff opined in December.
President-elect George W. Bush has often said that he once believed only Christians could be admitted to heaven but was convinced by no less than Billy Graham that any person who lives in a Christ-like fashion is saved regardless of religion. During the campaign, he consciously used the word "mosque" in speeches--as in "churches, synagogues and mosques." For centuries, relations between Christians and Jews, Muslims, and other faiths have been held back by the insistence on the part of some Christians of their exclusive access to heaven. Combined, might the pope's statement and having Bush in the White House lead to a high-profile interfaith dialogue on this essential topic?
Can India Survive Hindu Nationalism?
India is the world's largest democracy, and some of its economic indicators are favorable, even for some of the poor. But religious tensions tied to the ascendance of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP) are palpable throughout the country, with Muslims, liberal Hindus, and India's neighbors all uncomfortable. Indo-Pakistani relations are especially strained owing to each side's atomic bomb tests and the ongoing state of quasi-war in Kashmir and on the Siachen glacier. If something goes badly wrong in the world in 2001, there is more than a little chance that the venue of the bad news will be the border between Hindu nationalism and competing beliefs.
Will There Be a Lieberman Backlash?
The silver lining of the Florida recount mess was that it distracted attention from the defeat of the first major presidential campaign with a Jew on the ticket. This has prevented anyone from saying that Sen. Joe Lieberman "sunk the ticket" for the Democratic Party, which would have been a setback both for Christian-Jewish relations and for the hope of getting politics past all faith boundaries. It's possible, though, that as the dust settles on the Endless Recount campaign, some will begin to whisper that Lieberman should be blamed. What, some might ask, turned Al Gore's home state of Tennessee against him? This could get ugly quickly.
As talks between Israel and Palestinians falter and street deaths continue, when might the world's great faiths step forward to try to bring peace to the place that is holy to all the monotheistic religions? Judaism and Islam, as faiths, have been nearly as contentious in the Holy Land as competing governments and insurgencies there, while Christianity as a faith can hardly claim to have played much of a peacemaking role. If, especially, some kind of international peacekeeping force is implemented to separate the combatants, it will be incumbent on the three great monotheist faiths to become part of the solution, not just factors in the impasse.
Will the Ecumenical Trend Continue?
This year Lutherans and Episcopalians are expected finally to recognize each other: allow one another's clergy to preside at services, admit the other is wholly Christian, drop past condemnations and demanding that the other's leaders be placed on the rack and tortured, etc. Meanwhile, the Vatican and Canterbury continue to hope formally to reconcile, setting aside 500 years of mutual denunciations and the dispute over who is the "true" Catholic church. (For official purposes, the Anglican church still claims to be the true Catholicism, though Anglicans consider themselves Protestants.) On Christian interfaith issues, at least, peace is breaking out all over. Can it last? And the trend is hardly universal: orthodox Jews grew ever-more-shrill in denunciations of Reform Judaism, while Islamic factionalism remains violent in several nations.
Will the Pope Liberalize? Will the Pope Retire?
John Paul II's papacy has been marked by a combination of traditionalist theology, liberal stands on economic justice, ecumenical cooperation, and one surprise after another. Now the pope's health is faltering, raising the question of whether John Paul II, always daring, will be unusual in resigning his post before death. His statement on salvation for non-Christians surprised many Vatican observers, since it is theologically liberal. Specifically, the pope has distanced himself from Dominus Iesus, a September statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's commission on doctrinal orthodoxy, which had essentially declared that God would only admit Christians to heaven. Instead John Paul II upheld an inclusive teaching on the subject by the Second Vatican Council--and John Paul II has generally backed away from Vatican II in the past. Will this endlessly surprising pope surprise us again in his declining years?
Will There Be a Fight Over Faith-Based Programs?
Bush has already said he plans to establish an Office of Faith-Based Programs in the White House and to ask for significantly more funding for religious initiatives in education, social services and elsewhere. Some faith-based federal funding is already distributed under 1996 legislation that is, it turns out, not universally admired by the religious, since it might open the door to federal bureaucracy in places of worship. Bush's interest in faith-based services may, if nothing else, touch off a debate that will do for civic awareness of the Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion...") what the Florida mess did for civic awareness of the Electoral College.
Anti-abortion sentiment played little role in the 2000 presidential election, partly because the National Right to Life Committee seemed more interested in opposing campaign finance reform than in its official issue. But that could change with Bush in the White House; he will be the first president since Ronald Reagan to say he supports overturning Roe. (His father, as president, was mildly pro-life but fudged the Roe point.) For Supreme Court nominees, Bush has said both that he won't use litmus tests and that he wants judges similar to Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, the court's most anti-Roe members. When Bush makes his first Supreme Court nominee, political turmoil could break loose.
Will Pro-Life Thinking Spread to Anti-Capital Punishment?
With Illinois suspending executions and other states seeming to acquire qualms regarding the death sentence, and the very pro-execution Bush taking office, the issue could be galvanized: and it's one where political liberals, Catholics, Jews, and many mainline Protestants end up on the same side.
Will Developing-World Debt Relief Advance?
Speaking of odd coalitions of liberals, Catholics, and Protestants, many joined hands to support the Jubilee movement for developing-world debt reduction. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim thinkers are often on board as well, partly because many of the most impoverished nations are homes to these religious constituencies.
What Will Be the Big Spiritual Movie of the Year?
Will we see another mega-budget movie starring some Hollywood star who hasn't seen the inside of a sanctuary in 20 years as a blissful angel? John Travolta has been an angel--can Robert Downey and Madonna be far behind? Will there be another Tibet reincarnation costume epic (like "Kundun" or "Seven Years in Tibet" or "The Golden Child"), another special-effects attempt to envision what heaven is actually like ("What Dreams May Come"), another comedy about what heaven can't possibly be like ("Heaven Can Wait"), another devil-comes-to-life violent movie (like "End of Days"), or devil-comes-to-life comedy (the leggy bimbo-devil of "Bedazzled" or the idiot devil of "Little Nicky")? A cartoon musical version of Revelation? We can only wince in anticipation.