Year In Review 2009:  Hope and change and something for everyone

Back in January, President-elect Barack Obama invited the Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, prompting those on both sides of the political spectrum to take notice. Conservative evangelicals—most of whom did not vote for Obama—didn't criticize him so much as they did Warren, for accepting the invitation. Outrage from the homosexual-activist community—most of whom did vote for Obama—criticized the invitation because Warren had actively campaigned for traditional marriage during California's Proposition 8 campaign.

And, of course, atheist Michael Newdow organized a group of 11 atheist and humanist groups to file suit against the government. He wanted to prevent prayers of any kind from being offered at the presidential inauguration.

So the New Year began on the eve of a new president who had promised hope and change. He was promising change. However, while all improvement requires change, not all change is an improvement. So would the changes coming as 2009 began offer hope? Way back then, 12 months ago, ancient history to the American mind, who could know what the year would bring. What we know now is that the year was like that iconic and contentious moment on the Capitol Mall back in January: it offered something for everyone—both to love and to hate.


Politics as unusual
President Barack Obama pledges he wants a "post-partisan" administration, but pro-family activists say his actions drowned out his words.  

"The one thing Barack Obama's nominees seem to have in common is a disrespect for human life," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, as the president was putting his administration in place. 

The president got his first opportunity to leave a legacy with the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite what conservatives considered to be a spotty record that showed her tendency to legislate from the bench, nine Republicans—including Senators Lamar Alexander, Tenn.; Kit Bond, Mo.; Susan Collins, Maine; Judd Gregg, N.H.; Richard Lugar, Ind.; Mel Martinez, Fla.; Olympia Snowe, Maine; Lindsey Graham, S.C.; and George Voinovich, Ohio —helped to put her confirmation over the top in a 68-31vote.


Fighting for life
A poll released early in 2009 conducted by Pew Research finds the support for legal abortions has dropped to its lowest level in 15 years. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, finds—ironically—that President Barack Obama's abortion advocacy could be sparking a shift to the pro-life side of the abortion debate.

The Pew poll found 46 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in most cases or all cases and 44 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. That two-point margin in favor of abortion is the lowest margin since 1995 as Pew, and other polling firms, have been asking the same polling question of Americans across the country every year.

A Harris Poll finds a plurality of Americans want all or most abortions to be illegal and overwhelming majorities of Americans want more abortion limits in law. The nationwide poll showed just 9 percent said abortion should be legal for any reason at any time during pregnancy. It found 82 percent of Americans said abortion should either be illegal under all circumstances or would limit its legality.

Despite the growing pro-life attitude of Americans, our government continued to make abortion easier. On Jan. 23, Obama reversed the so-called Mexico City Policy. President Ronald Reagan first established the pro-life Mexico City Policy in 1984. The policy declared that American tax dollars would not fund nongovernmental organizations involved in performing or promoting abortions abroad. President Bill Clinton reversed the policy in 1993. President George W. Bush then reinstated it in 2001.

Obama also overturned his predecessor's policy and created an incentive to destroy human embryos for federally funded research.

"The latest government bailout was announced as Obama will now attempt to bail out the morally bankrupt and failing industry of destructive embryonic stem-cell research," said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family Action. "Americans deserve the very best investment of our tax dollars, and embryonic stem-cell research doesn't make the grade. After years and millions of dollars in research, no patient has been successfully treated with human embryonic stem cells."

In another blow to family advocates, Obama announced March 6 he wanted to overturn rules that protect health care providers' freedom of conscience. President George W. Bush's Department of Health and Human Services put the regulations in place in December to reinforce federal laws that protect doctors from being forced to participate in abortion and other anti-life practices.

Despite the setbacks, pro-life advocates soldiered on. At this year's commemoration of the 36th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court, on Jan. 22, a grim milestone was remembered. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, more than 45 million preborn babies have been aborted.

Two other defining moments occurred in 2009, both related to one man: George Tiller. Tiller, a notorious late-term abortion doctor, was tried on March 23 in Wichita, Kan. for performing abortions on late-term pregnancies. A jury acquitted Tiller of the chargers, but the doctor was under another investigation at the time of his death. The trial followed a string of incidents involving Tiller, including the 1986 bombing of his clinic. In 1991, his facility was blockaded for six weeks. In 1993, an abortion opponent shot him in both arms. He had been investigated twice by grand juries that found no cause to charge him with crimes. In 2006, then-Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline charged Tiller with illegally performing late-term abortions. The charges were later dropped because of a technicality about jurisdiction.

On May 31, Tiller was shot to death as he stood in the doorway of his church, Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan. Scott Roeder, a man whose family said he had a history of mental problems, was arrested for the shooting. Pro-life activists quickly condemned the murder. Following his murder, his family announced the clinic would close permanently, ending a concerted effort by pro-lifers to use the court system to shutter the business.

Just over three months later disabled pro-lifer Jim Pouillon was standing outside an Owosso, Mich., high school when a man drove by and shot him multiple times, according to Fox News. Pouillon reportedly was carrying a pro-life sign. Police arrested a suspect hours later. The suspect in the murder is also accused of killing another man. Authorities believe the suspect was angry over the graphic nature of the pro-life signs.

Also in 2009, pro-lifers opened up a new front in the war against abortion. Signaling the growing momentum of the personhood movement, North Dakota's House of Representatives approved HB 1572 with a vote of 51-41. The measure failed to pass the senate, however. Six other states had efforts under way to protect the personhood of pre-born children. In addition, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from El Cajon, Calif. introduced H.R. 881, the Right to Life Act, on the federal level, propelling the personhood movement forward.

The common thread among all of these efforts is the goal to fill what is becoming known as the "Blackmun Hole" in Roe v. Wade. This is where Justice Harry Blackmun implied in the Roe v. Wade decision that if the case were established that the pre-born was a person, the argument for abortion collapses. In Roe v Wade, it is acknowledged that the "fetus" is fully human, but did not grant the rights of "persons" until birth.


Faith-based fraud
Desperate economic times sometimes call for desperate economic measures. That may have been why faith-based fraud stepped into the limelight in 2009. In fact, the total amount of money that "leaks" out of the church and Christian philanthropy system via waste, fraud and abuse could top $27 billion in 2009.  

"That's about 6 percent of the global total of $410 billion given to Christian charities," said Bert Hickman, a research associate with the Center for the Study of Global Philanthropy at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

That's why the ECFA and other organizations—under the umbrella of the Lausanne Movement—are attempting to quantify the leakage, and the source of the leaks, in advance of The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to be held in 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa.

The causes of these leaks are not that hard to identify.

"Embezzlement or fraud accounts for a significant part of the total," Hickman said. "But sometimes it starts out fairly innocently, with a loan to an employee that doesn't get paid back because it is improperly accounted for and then forgotten or written off."

The most prominent faith-based fraud in 2009 was the Bernard Madoff affair, in which as much as $50 billion was scammed from investors—many of them who knew Madoff because of his activism in the Jewish community. One Jewish organization hard hit was The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, which has financed the trips of hundreds of Jewish youth to Israel. It posted a stark message on its Web site:  

"The programs of the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation and the Robert I. Lappin 1992 Supporting Foundation are discontinued, effectively immediately. This includes Youth to Israel and Teachers to Israel. The money used to fund the programs of both foundations was invested with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities and all the assets have been frozen by the federal courts. The money needed to fund the programs of the Lappin Foundations is gone."

Christian organizations had their fair share of fraud and mismanagement in 2009. Founded in 1994, the Georgia-based Angel Food Ministries feeds poor families. But the ministry came under scrutiny in 2009 because of allegations of sexual harassment and extravagant salaries on the part of the founders and their family members. Texas billionaire—or, ex-billionaire— Allen Stanford was arrested following the collapse of his financial empire, an empire that owes much to the networking his senior officers did in the evangelical Christian community.

And in one of the strangest religious scams of the year, Harvey Dockstader Jr., who was convicted of running an illegal pyramid scheme in Harris County (Houston), Tex., in 2008, and sentenced to two years in jail, continued to run his organization—which he calls a church—from prison.

"It's a classic pyramid scheme," said Valerie Turner, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Dockstader. "A pretty straightforward case."

But this pyramid scheme has a twist. New recruits are told they are embracing a "belief system of giving." Their payments are not fees or dues—but gifts. And like much "prosperity gospel" teaching, recruits are promised a massive "harvest" on the "seeds" they plant. The Web site declares:  "You can receive $800, $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000, and $48,000 in gifts—over and over again!!"

Dockstader is due out of prison in May, and he's expected to return to the helm of what he now calls The Elite Resurrected Church. People who contribute money are "members" of the church.

"It always amazes me that people fall for these schemes, but they do," prosecutor Turner said.


It's the economy, sister
The economic downturn has also affected more reputable organizations. Focus on the Family had several staff reductions in 2009, taking their staff levels below the 900 level, down from a high of almost 1,500 just a few years ago. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in response to the national economic downturn, reduced its administrative staff by 35 positions: 20 full-time and 15 part-time, effective Jan. 30.

But according to Randy Alcorn, whose books on giving include "The Treasure Principle" and "Money, Possessions, and Eternity," giving is a "powerful witness of the gospel" that he calls the "greatest form of evangelism." Alcorn said that giving in tough economic times is particularly important for the Christian.

"For one thing, in tough times Christian charity is needed all the more," he said. "For another, the testimony of that giving is even more profound. Giving in tough times tells the world that it is God's providence, not a large checking account, that is the source of our sustenance and security."  

But out of economic hardship, a new movement is being born. In hundreds of U.S. cities, conservative groups held tax protest "tea parties" on April 15 to highlight the growing tax burden on American citizens.

The tea parties were promoted by FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group from Washington and led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. At least 25,000 people attended the parties and organizers of the movement said word was spread mainly through social networking sites along with exposure in the news.

ChristianityToday reported groups in attendance such as Focus on the Family Action, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the American Family Association and said that these groups, "helped promote the demonstrations."

According to the Associated Press, the political implications of the rallies "remain to be seen." But by the fall they were attributed to the success of several tea-party candidates who won local races. Tea-party motivated activism also helped to elect conservative Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia.


Marriage on trial
The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2009 that a law declaring marriage to be between a man and a woman is unconstitutional, making its state the first in the Midwest to approve same-sex marriage.

Iowa's court ruled that same-sex marriage would become legal on April 24, and the law would apply to any couple who wanted to travel to Iowa. The county attorney who defended the law said he would not seek a rehearing. The only alternative for opponents appears to be a constitutional amendment, which would be considered in 2011 at the earliest.

Iowa was not alone.  

Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill making the state the fifth to allow same-sex marriage, the Associated Press reported. A "people's veto" was immediately launched by citizens to allow voters to place the issue on the ballot. The Maine Family Policy Council summed it up with a note posted on its Web site: "Please pray that God will intervene. He is our best hope. God has not forgotten about Maine. Even though things seem grim, He may yet be gracious toward us."

Those prayers were answered when Maine voters overturned the same-sex marriage law in November. Indeed, when the issue is put to the people, the voters almost always side with traditional marriage. More than 30 states have put laws or amendments in place to protect marriage. Nonetheless, by year-end, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont allowed same-sex couples to marry.

And the fallout over same-sex marriage was not all political. Former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, a San Diego resident who attended San Diego Christian College and the Rock Church in Point Loma, said last spring that she knew she'd lost the Miss USA crown as soon as she spoke in favor of one-man, one-woman marriage. During the Miss USA telecast, Prejean was asked whether other states should follow Vermont's lead in legislating same-sex marriage.

"In my family, I … believe marriage should be between a man and a woman," she said. "No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised."

Prejean later told NBC: "I knew at that moment, after I'd answered the question, I knew that I was not going to win because of my answer—because I had spoken from my heart, from my beliefs, and for my God."

Even Donald Trump, who co-owns the pageant, acknowledged that her answer "probably did cost her the crown." Prejean finished as first runner-up to Miss North Carolina.

Perez Hilton, a gay-activist blogger, was the judge who posed the question to Prejean. He called it the "worst answer in pageant history" and subsequently called Miss California profane names.  

"That is not the kind of woman I want to be Miss USA," he told MSNBC. "Miss USA should represent all Americans. And with her answer, she instantly was divisive and alienated millions."

However, since the event, there has been an outpouring of support for Prejean.

"The idea that defending the historic, Judeo-Christian definition of marriage makes one ineligible to win a contest—in this case, Miss USA—is, frankly, un-American," said Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality.

Prejean said she would give the same answer again.

"Bottom line is, I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman," she told NBC. "It's not about being politically correct. For me, it was being biblically correct. I wouldn't change a thing."

The controversy over Prejean did not end, however, with her comments about same-sex marriage. Numerous photographs of Prejean in sexually-suggestive positions began to circulate the Internet. A lawsuit she filed against the California pageant was settled shortly after the photos became public.


The ancient-future church
While every denomination has its share of conflict and controversy, the saga of The Episcopal Church was perhaps the most interesting and emblematic of 2009. Conservatives have been leaving the denomination for years, but in 2009, for the first time, the conservative Episcopalians started coming back together, and by year-end, the Anglican Church of North America had more than 100,000 communicants, making it perhaps the fastest growing new church body in America.

But the victory was not without cost. The liberal Episcopal Church claimed a major legal victory Jan. 5 when California's Supreme Court ruled that breakaway parishes do not have the right to keep church property if they secede from the national denomination.  

The decision technically applies to only one church in one state—St. James Church in Newport Beach, Calif.—but Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a statement that the high court's "unequivocal reasoning applies generally through the Episcopal Church."

On Dec. 16, St. Luke's Anglican Church in La Crescenta, which lost its own court battle over property after leaving the denomination, filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in that case.

Dozens of conservative parishes—and four dioceses, including one in California—have left the Episcopal Church since the ordination of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

In Colorado, the El Paso County District Court issued a judgment that determined the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Colorado to be the owners of the $17-million Grace Church & St. Stephen's, located in downtown Colorado Springs.

The March 24 decision followed a five-week trial that was closely watched because of its implications for other property disputes between the Episcopal Church and conservative congregations that have left the church.

If these adverse court decisions were discouraging to the conservatives, they got a reminder of what they were fighting for when leaders at the Episcopal Church's tri-annual convention voted in August to overwhelmingly on a resolution that opens "any ordained ministry" to homosexuals. The move lifted a moratorium on ordaining gay- or lesbian-identified bishops that the church passed three years ago.

"It appears that the Episcopal Church is determined to move its own agenda forward despite calls from various senior levels to respect the order and discipline of the church," said the Rev. Canon Julian Dobbs, canon missioner for the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. "The Episcopal Church is determined to move further away from a traditional and a clearly biblical position of Christian marriage, which affirms that marriage is a life-long relationship between one man and one woman."

In late June delegates from the Anglicans gathered for their first assembly in Texas to ratify their church constitution. The gathering drew support from Southern Baptists and the National Association of Evangelicals. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., addressed the attendees. Warren reminded those in attendance that God calls Christians to have a great commitment to the Great Commission, which will grow a great church.

By year-end, the struggle of Anglicans in America had attracted worldwide attention. In a bid to attract disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion, the Vatican announced Oct. 19 that it is establishing a special arrangement that will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while preserving their liturgy and spiritual heritage, including married priests.

"This move by the Catholic Church recognizes the reality of the divide within the Anglican Communion and affirms the decision to create a new North American province that embraces biblical truth," Bishop Martyn Minns, a part of the Anglican Church in North America, said he didn't expect many Anglicans to move to Rome, but he welcomed the show of solidarity.


Real hope, real change
So while the year began with promises of hope and change, by year-end a struggling economy, off-year elections, the healthcare debate, and a war that entered its ninth year—making it one of the longest in American history—brought changes not anticipated on Jan. 1.

But hope? Perhaps.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, said the U.S. is still a right-of-center country.

"The candidates that ended up doing very well, were candidates that understood the importance of keeping a conservative coalition together," he said,

And facts, as the old saying goes, are stubborn things. A Planned Parenthood director resigned from a Bryan, Tex. clinic in the fall after witnessing an abortion.  

"You actually see the baby on the (ultrasound) screen as it's being killed," Abby Johnson, 29, said. "That was very heart-wrenching for me."

Johnson resigned in early October, following pressure from her employer to "get more abortions in the door," a local TV station reported.

"I just thought, 'I can't do this anymore,'" she said.

Johnson now volunteers at Coalition for Life, a pro-life group located just a block away from the Planned Parenthood clinic where she worked for eight years.

And by year-end nearly a million Christians had signed the Manhattan Declaration. The document was drafted by a group of Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical Christians to make a common statement on the sanctity of human life, marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman, and religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

"Rarely before have so many American Christian leaders, from across the theological spectrum, come together in one accord to stand in support of religious liberty, life, marriage, and the family, said Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund. "It's a great privilege for me to join with Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians in adding my signature, as an individual, to this historic document, and I hope others will join in support of this effort."

The declaration states, in part, "Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destruction research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

And—by the way—do you remember that prayer that Rick Warren was asked to offer at the inauguration? To counter criticism that he had asked a conservative evangelical to pray, Obama invited the openly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, to pray at the inaugural opening ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial. Robinson issued a statement expressing his "great honor to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire, and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community." Conservative activist Gary Bauer said it was an example of Obama "caving" to the special interests that got him elected president.

Rick Warren, for his part, ignored the controversy. Following a brief prayer, "Pastor Rick," as he likes to be called, encouraged the crowd—estimated to be 1.8-million people—to pray with him the Lord's Prayer, which includes the words "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." 

Dr. Anthony Bradley, a conservative African-American theologian, was on the mall that day. He said the sound of all those people praying in one voice was a "transcendent moment," no matter what your political affiliation.

So while it's still true that not all changes are improvements, and that some of the changes we brought on ourselves in 2009 will take us generations to pay for, perhaps with changes like these, there really is reason to hope.

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