The tumultuous beginning of 2011 was brought on by natural disasters and political unrest. Massive blizzards, tornados, earthquakes and a tsunami rocked the world and the United States while powerful regimes in the Middle East began crumbling in defeat to protestors.
Congress begins session with renewed focus
When the U.S. House of Representatives launched the 112th session of Congress Jan. 6, 2011, it began with a recitation of the U.S. Constitution. It wasamazingly, to somethe first time the document had ever been read in its entirety on the House floor.
In some ways this reading proved to be a metaphor for the year 2011, though of course it's a metaphor that could be interpreted in at least two ways: Will 2011 be seen as a year in which the country returned to first principles or one in which we discovered that such efforts were too little, too late?
Economic recovery remained the top story both in the news and in the minds of most Americans.
With less than an hour to go before a midnight deadline on April 8, Washington's top political leaders announced a budget deal, averting the federal government's first shutdown in 15 years. Senate Democrats and House Republicans had agreed to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year while making about $39 billion in additional spending cuts.
But these cuts were not enoughnot by a long shot. By the year's end, we had seen debt-ceiling fights and the creation of a super-committee charged with making lasting cuts to the budget, which had ballooned in the past three years. The super-committee failed to reach an agreement on spending reductions, so automatic cuts imposed by the legislation to raise the debt ceiling kicked in.
Tragedy hits Arizona Congresswoman
On January 8, an assassin left six people dead and 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded, in Tucson, Ariz. On this occasion, President Obama gave a speech that will likely be remembered long after his State of the Union Address is forgotten.
He began his speech with words of mourning and remembrance from the Psalms for the six people who lost their lives in the incidentJudge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman and Christina Taylor Green. He then encouraged prayers for the quick recovery of the wounded.
Obama also used Scripture to help address the national debate about the cause of the tragedy, saying, "In the words of Job, 'when I looked for light, then came darkness.' Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath."
During his 34-minute speech, the president asked Americans not to turn on each other, saying, "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarizedat a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we doit's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."
Roe v. Wade 38 years later
Since 1973's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, there have been over 50 million unborn children who have died. In the past nearly 39 years since January 22, 1973, increases in scientific understanding of abortion and fetal development have brought about significant changes in the abortion debate.
Support for the pro-life cause has continued to grow. The largest pro-life congressional class since Roe v. Wade had just taken office in the House, and state legislatures were passing scores of pro-life laws.
The pro-life movement needed its new political power in 2011. The maker of the Plan B morning-after pill asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow girls as young as 11 to be able to buy it without a prescription. Girls who are younger than 17 currently need a prescription. The morning-after pill is given to women within 72 hours of sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy. The pill contains high concentrations of the hormones found in oral contraceptives and may cause an early abortion. The FDA approved the request. It took political pressure by pro-lifers to get the Obama Administration to override the FDA recommendation.
Pro-life Congressmen attempted to defund Planned Parenthood. That effortwhich resulted in a vote on April 14ultimately failed, but it did put every member of Congress on the record as being for or against the move. Life advocates are also calling on lawmakers to include four pro-life amendments in new spending bills. They would, in addition to defunding Planned Parenthood, reinstate the Mexico City Policy, which prevents federal funds from going to international groups that promote or perform abortions. They would also defund the U.N. Population Fund and stop government-funded abortions in Washington, D.C.
At the March for Life held in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., directed a word of caution to Congress and perhaps to his own Republican leadership: "Amidst these struggles some would have us focus on jobs and spending. Those who would ignore the battle of life have forgotten history. . . . A nation that will not stand for life will not stand for long. You know there can be no lasting prosperity without a moral foundation in law."
American missionaries killed
A Southern California couple who had logged more than 60,000 nautical miles in their quest to deliver Bibles around the world were shot and killed February 22 by Somali pirates who hijacked their yacht off the coast of Africa. A Washington state couple traveling with them was also gunned down.
Killed in the attack were Scott and Jean Adams from Marina Del Ray, Calif., and their friends Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle of Seattle, Wash.
The Adams had been traveling the globe since 2004 distributing Bibles provided to them by the American Bible and International Bible societies. The mission statement on their website had said their passion was to "allow the power of the Word to transform lives."
Storms, tornados, earthquakes and a tsunami
A series of snowstorms and blizzards took their toll from the East Coast to the Midwest. New York City had the second snowiest month on record with 36 inches in January. The East Coast was hit with a massive blizzard at the beginning of February, shutting down cities from Chicago to Dallas. The storms left 36 people dead and nearly $4 billion in damages.
In March, a catastrophic 9.0 earthquake hit Japan causing a crushing tsunami, which triggered a nuclear crisis, setting off radiation scares across the Pacific Ocean to the coast of California. The disaster left nearly 20,000 people dead or missing, according to the Japanese government, and more than $220 billion in damage.
At the end of April a series of powerful tornados broke out across the Northeast, South and Midwest leaving hundreds dead and injured. A month later a tornado, nearly three-quarters of a mile wide, destroyed much of Joplin, Mo. It was the deadliest tornado in more than a half of a century.
An earthquake shook up Washington, D.C., on Aug. 23. It was the largest earthquake to hit the East Coast since 1944. The 5.8-magnitude quake with an epicenter located only about 84 miles from Washington rattled thousands of workers out of their office buildings.
Persecution rises around the world
Pakistan's only cabinet-level Christian, who openly criticized his nation's "blasphemy" laws, was assassinated March 2. Shahbaz Bhatti was the federal minister for minority affairs, who defended the rights of persecuted Christians in Pakistan. In an interview with BBC prior to his death, Bhatti had said he was "ready to die for a cause" as a Christian.
Voice of the Martyrs launched the "Call for Mercy Campaign" in an effort to raise awareness and petition the Pakistani government to release Asia Bibi from her prison cell. Bibi, a 45-year-old mother, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging. She has been imprisoned for more than two years.
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed after calling for a pardon for Bibi and changes to the blasphemy law in Pakistan. He was shot 26 times by a bodyguard on Jan. 4.
At least 12 people were killed and more than 200 were wounded when members of a conservative Muslim movement attacked two churches and surrounding Christian-owned homes and businesses in a poor section of Cairo on May 7. Salifis, a hard-line Islamic movement with extremist tendencies, set fire to one of the two church buildings, leaving most of it gutted. The event was one of several against Christians that came in the midst or aftermath of so-called "Arab Spring" uprisings.
Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian pastor, who was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for apostasy was dealt more setbacks in his appeals this past year. In June, the Iranian Supreme Court upheld his conviction for apostasy that came with a death sentence, but the court asked for a re-examination of Nadarkhani's case to determine if he was a Muslim before he converted to Christianity at 19.
During the re-examination, Nadarkhani was given three opportunities to recant his faith in order to have the charges rescinded but he refused.
The court determined that Nadarkhani was a Muslim when he embraced Christianity since he was born in a Muslim family, and his case was referred to the ayatollah.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement Dec. 9 calling for Nadarkhani and several other prisoners of conscience to be released "immediately and unconditionally." The American Center for Law and Justice reported Dec. 16 that the Iranian court had ordered any decision on Pastor Nadarkhani to be delayed for at least four months. Meanwhile, a second organization that monitors religious freedom in the Middle East, known as Present Truth Ministries, reported that the delay could last a year.
It is still unknown what role the Iranian Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei played in the decision. Nadarkhani's supporters had expected a decision in mid-December. It is reported that Nadarkhani's health is deteriorating.
Political unrest in the Middle East
The Arab Spring, a wave of demonstrations throughout the Arab world that has resulted in the overthrow of at least three dictators, actually began in Tunisia in December of 2010. Tunisia's so-called "Twitter Revolution" was fueled by social media and righteous indignation against the country's repressive regime.
Civil uprisings followed in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. In Yemen, the prime minister was forced to resign. Major protests also occurred in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman. In some of these countries, such as Jordan, the leaders responded by moving toward Western-style reforms, but in Libya, civil war broke out.
By February, the events of the Arab Spring were beginning to melt Muammar Quaddafi of Libya. In a rambling speech on state television on Feb. 24, the dictator blamed the influence of Osama bin Laden and hallucinogenic drugs for the rebellion, which was fuelled mostly by young people.
Ten days after mass protests began unfolding across the country, Muammar Qaddafi's grip on reality wasn't the only thing loosening: Opposition forces reportedly controlled large swaths of eastern Libya and were advancing toward the capital city of Tripoli.
But the battle for the country wasn't over: Qaddafi had vowed to stay and "die as a martyr" before giving up control of the oil-rich nation he had ruled for decades.
In the end, Qaddafi did die, though hardly as a martyr, and Libya and other countries liberated by the Arab Spring have begun the long process of democratic reform, while the U.S. and many other Western countries hope that radical Islamist groups don't use elections simply to replace one brand of despotism for another.
Uncertain future in North Korea
The death of long-time dictator Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" of one of the world's most oppressive regimes increased anxiety throughout the region, especially as the North test-fired a missile Dec. 19 over the East Sea. There are many unknowns surrounding his successor, youngest son Kim Jong Un. According to Open Doors there are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians being held in North Korean prison camps where they face even more horrific treatment than other prisoners.
Navy SEALS end decade mission
American military forces killed Osama bin Laden early May 2 in Pakistan, nearly a decade after terrorist strikes he'd supervised resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the deadliest day of attacks against the United States on its own soil.
After avoiding capture for nearly 10 years, bin Laden, 54, died at the hands of an elite U.S. military team in a firefight at a heavily secured, northern Pakistani compound where he may have lived for as many as six years.
As the only head of Al-Qaida for more than two decades, bin Laden was the man most identified with the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaida members on suicide missions took over four commercial airliners and flew two into the separate towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon. The fourth was flown into the ground in Pennsylvania amid a passenger uprising.
President Obama announced the killing of bin Laden in a late-night address to the country saying, "Justice has been done." He said the death of the leader militant Islamic organization Al-Qaida "should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."
The U.S. team took bin Laden's corpse to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. His body was buried at sea with a traditional Muslim burial ceremony according to the Department of Defense.
This year marked the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, and remembrances of the event dominated the news in early September, noting that the mastermind behind the tragedy was buried earlier in the year.
New 9/11 memorials were opened in time for the anniversary at Ground Zero and in Shanksville, Penn. where United Flight 93, the fourth airliner hijacked by Al-Qaida terrorists on 9/11, crashed. The new 2,220-acre Flight 93 National Memorial site includes a two-mile processional drive to a landscaped field of honor. The field will also be ringed by 40 groves of trees one for each victim.
In the weeks leading up to the 9/11 anniversary events, controversy swirled around the fact that no clergy or prayers were part of the planning for the official event at Ground Zero in New York. Despite the efforts to keep the 9/11 service free of religion, invited speakers read scriptures and prayed. President Obama read all of Psalm 46.
Tebow mania and 'tebowing'
It's no secret that Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow has used football as a platform for his faith and that it has everyone talking. He has become a household name. One Broncos fan even went so far as to create an Internet meme of "tebowing" which means, "to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different." The gesture was named after Tebow, who often drops to one knee during his football games to give thanks to God. The Broncos quarterback is building a children's hospital in the Philippines, where he was born, and last year gave away his entire $2.5 million signing bonus to charities.
Hell and judgment day
A firestorm lit up the evangelical community when Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., published his controversial book "Love Wins," which topped The New York Times bestseller list. His book questioned traditional beliefs about hell. Many leaders criticized Bell's book saying it embraced universalism and the notion that Jesus is not the only way to salvation.
Jumping into the debate, pastor and bestselling author Francis Chan challenged the notion of hell and universalism with a new book "Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things We've Made Up." In the book, Chan challenged the interpretation that hell is temporary and that a merciful God would not punish non-believers for eternity. Chan said the seriousness of the subject matter mandated a need for humility in the debate. He also admitted in an interview with Relevant Magazine that Bell's book had challenged him to go back to the Bible and reexamine his views on hell.
Failed end-time predictions from Harold Camping brought criticism, amusement and disillusionment to many. Camping, 90, predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011. When there was no rapture on May 21, he then claimed that the world was headed for a final judgment day on October 21.
2011 wasn't the first time Camping had made such boldand falsepredictions. An earlier prediction for the rapture to occur in 1994 also came and went unfulfilled.
After failing to predict Christ's return, Camping admitted, after years of falsely misleading his followers, that he was wrong and regretted his erroneous teachings on the rapture.
All shook up
So where is America in the year of our Lord 2011?
Duke University professor Mark Chaves says Americans are thinking less and less about religion. In "American Religion: Contemporary Trends," Chaves uses data from four decades' worth of General Social Survey results and the National Congregations Study, which he directs, to show how religious belief in the United States has experienced a "softening."
Chaves says this softening affects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. He adds that congregations are shrinking and dissatisfaction with religious leaders is growing.
Sociologist Bradley Wright recently plotted survey data over the last 25 years that recorded what Americans say about the importance of religion in their lives. He discovered that the number of those who say it's extremely important has grown slightly, along with the number of those who say it's not at all important. But the number of people who said it was "somewhat" important dropped from 36 percent to 22 percent in about 20 years.
The Barna Group also saw a shift in the changing role of faith and Christianity in Americans. According to a recent survey, 41 percent of Americans were unable to identify any individual whom they consider to be an influential Christian. They also found that half of Americans believe that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God no matter what they do, while 40 percent disagreed.
Despite that Americans seem a little shaky on their faith, Christianity has grown into a global faith in the last century. According to Pew Research, Christianity is now practiced in large numbers on every continent, particularly Africa and Asia. Christianity still remains the world's largest religion "by far" and has seen the number of adherents nearly quadruple in the last century, according to Pew. However, its growthas a portion of the populationhas not kept pace with worldwide population.
Where do we go from here
After a year of failed predictions we would be best to leave those out when looking ahead to 2012. This past year has been a difficult onewith economic failure, broken promises, downsizing, rising religious persecution and political unrest around the world. Perhaps we need a reminder: it is in these difficult times that God's grace and favor meets us where we are, so it is prudent we keep our eyes and hearts focused upward as we enter a new year.
We do know that through these tumultuous times in our present world God has provided unprecedented opportunities to share the message of the Gospel.
"As evangelicals we are people of the good news, but may we also always be people of truth, worthy of the God of truth. God is true. God can be trusted in all situations. Have faith in God. Have no fear. Hold fast to truth. And may God be with us all."Os Guinness, senior fellow of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.
The Year in Review was compiled by World News Service, with additional reporting from BP News and Christian Examiner staff.