1) The reelection of Barack Obama suggests new diversity among America’s religious believers and how they relate to politics. Obama received strong support from religious and ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as among the growing ranks of the unaffiliated. Republican contender Mitt Romney went down in defeat while drawing the white Christian base. Observers took note that the 2012 election may be the last one in which a contender hoping to be elected can do it through mainly courting the traditional white Protestant-Catholic vote. Meanwhile, polls show that evangelicals overcame their initial resistance to voting for a Mormon, as they strongly supported the Romney candidacy.
2) The growing influence of the religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. was attested to not only in the elections but in several much-publicized surveys conducted in 2012. A Pew Forum survey found that the non-affiliated, or the “nones,” had increased to 20 percent of the population. This doesn’t necessarily mean a large growth of secularism in the U.S. (although the numbers of those identifying as atheists and agnostics have increased), but the Pew study did find a connection between the non-affiliated and holding liberal political views-a pattern that was borne out in 2012 and no doubt in elections to come.
The growth of religiously unaffiliated people is far from a US phenomenon. In Canada, according to another Pew report, they represent 23.7 percent of the population. The recently released annual British Population Survey found that 27,9 percent of the population of England and Wales had no religious affiliation in 2011. “Spiritual but not religious” may describe part of this population, while atheism and agnosticism would reflect a smaller segment. Still, according to Pew, out of a world population of 6.9 billion in 2010, 5.8 billion had a religious affiliation: the unaffiliated are found primarily in Asia and the Pacific, Europe and North America.
3) The 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council has provided the Roman Catholic Church with an opportunity to make an assessment of reforms and changes that powerfully transformed it over the past half-century.
Historians such as Yvon Tranvouez (University of Brest, France) stress that we should not just consider the event but the entire process of which it was a part: a process that may have started with early reforms in the 1950s and ended with the pontificate of John Paul II. But in a sense, it has not ended, as long as the divide between “progressive” and “conservative” Catholics remains. At least in Europe, the parish has become less important than it used to be: faithful tend increasingly to choose where they worship, instead of attending automatically their territorial parish. At the global level, a century ago, hopes were all set toward the expansion of Christianity: today, the emphasis goes rather toward respect of cultures and interreligious dialogue, according to Tranvouez.
While liturgical changes have been the most obvious ones, with free-standing altars and priests facing the faithful in most churches now, what has been the most important change brought by the Council was the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward the outside world, observes Hans Maier (a former president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and retired professor of Munich University). While some Catholics hope for a Third Vatican Council, most observers do not expect such an event in the foreseeable future.
4) The Vatican turned its attention to liberal tendencies among American Roman Catholic nuns in 2012, aiming at establishing bishop oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most of the country’s 56,000 women religious. The nuns’ showed and organized considerable resistance to such efforts, and polls show that many American Catholics support nuns and their leadership in social ministries. All this will make it difficult for the Vatican and the bishops to make its case for stricter discipline and oversight of American nuns.
5) The US Catholic bishops have found more support among their flock in their resistance to government efforts to make birth control available in church-sponsored hospitals and other institutions. The Obama administration argues that it is a matter of public health to include contraceptive options in employee health insurance policies. The bishops and other religious leaders counter that such measures violate religious freedom, as they seek to restrict the churches’ social ministries.
6) Radical Islamic groups have continued to present concerns not only in areas where they used to be active for years–while suffering some setbacks–, such as Afghanistan or Somalia but also in other areas, including Africa. This was evidenced by territorial gains of Jihadi groups in Mali, but also by the increased activities of the indigenous Boko Haram militant group in Nigeria, with violent actions targeting not only State representatives, but often Christians.
In the Arab world, the bloody civil war in Syria has seen militant Islamic groups emerging as the most effective fighters against governmental forces. Radical Islamic groups are not coordinated and have partly different agendas, but may ally in some cases. The developments in Syria, with Iranian support for the current regime, have also a potential impact on Shia-Sunni relations, affecting not only Iran, but also Lebanese Hizbullah.
7) One of the consequences of last year’s Arab Spring in several countries has been the new political role of Islamic movements in several countries, especially Tunisia and Egypt. This derives partly from the fact that they were better organized than other political forces (except for the older, partly discredited political groups associated with the former authoritarian regimes). It also expresses real support for “Islamic values” among large parts of those societies. Competition between different groups can also be noticed, as in Egypt between Muslim Brothers and Salafi political parties that were formed after regime change.
The talk about Islamicizing society by people in power creates unease with Christian minorities and reinforces existing trends of emigration, as it already happened in Iraq on a significant scale after the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the same time, the concern about the potential or existing trouble for Christians in the Middle East has been growing in the West, and Christian groups supporting religious freedom and reporting on persecution of Christians are doing their best to keep that awareness alive.
8) The death of Sun Myung Moon last September will likely shape the future of the Unification Church. Already Moon’s children had been placed in various successor roles that show conflicting tendencies in Unificationism that have yet to result in schism, although the eldest surviving son has been operating separately from the rest of the family for the past few years, with control on significant assets (resulting in several court cases) Since the mid-1990s, Moon had attempted to establish Unificationism as a movement bringing unity among those of different creeds and nations and appointed the above mentioned son to maintain that direction. Yet recent financial problems and membership decline in Unificationism led Moon to appoint other children to various leadership posts who have moved the organization more in the direction of an established church or denomination.
More generally, the passing away of Moon marked the end of a generation of charismatic, famous religious leaders who came to public attention in the 1960s and 1970s and had a significant impact on the perception of “cults” or “new religious movements” both in research and public opinion terms.
9) To some extent, the expectations around December 21, 2012, appeared as a remake of the Y2K phenomenon. In the same way, a number of media suggested that apocalyptic groups were preparing for cataclysmic events around December 2012-but scholars could find few or no groups with such a mindset. There were authors claiming that disasters might strike on that date who attracted various readerships, but they were not group leaders who generated large followings.. The date was important in some “New Age” circles, sometimes described as a turning point in ascending up to 5th dimension, but it was seen as part of of a sweries of other world changes, possibly along with some disasters according to several figures, but not on Dec. 21 and partly conditional, depending upon mankind’s ability and willingness to change.
There was a major difference with Y2K, however: the roots of the 2012 phenomenon were not found in technological fears of mainstream culture, like Y2K, but entirely in the alternative religious milieu; thanks to the 2012 movie (2009) and to media reports, the date spread to mainstream culture. Field research also showed that aspirations of New Age circles to collective change are alive and well.