Top Religion Story of 2021:
Religion’s Role in Jan. 6 Riot

President Joe Biden named religion newsmaker of the year

Religion News Association | Wednesday, December 20, 2021

The prominent role played by religion in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was chosen as the top religion story of 2021 by members of the Religion News Association in its annual Top 10 Religion Stories and Newsmaker of the Year Poll.

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan was voted second, followed by the Supreme Court’s hearing of a challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. The Top 10 list also included two stories each related to the pandemic and controversies in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Members selected President Joe Biden—who took office as the second Catholic president and whose devotional life drew attention even as his support for legal abortion drew controversy—was named Religion Newsmaker of 2021.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic who helped solidify a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court in her first year in the role, was the runner-up for top newsmaker, followed by the Taliban.

Members of the Religion News Association, a 72-year-old trade association for reporters who cover religion in the news media, have been voting on the annual story poll for decades. A complete list of the stories and newsmakers they ranked appears below.


1.    Religion features prominently during the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists. Some voice Christian prayers, while others display Christian or pagan symbols and slogans inside and outside the Capitol.

2.    Taliban retake control of Afghanistan after U.S. military withdraws, reimposing strict Islamic rule 20 years after their ouster by a U.S.-backed coalition in the wake of 9/11. Refugees flee in airlift amid fears for the future of women and religious minorities.

3.    Supreme Court hears Mississippi’s bid to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision establishing a right to abortion. Court refuses to block Texas’s enactment of law allowing private citizens to enforce a ban on abortions after cardiac activity can be detected, early in pregnancy.

4.    Tens of thousands of government and private-sector employees seek religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Many, but not all, religious leaders refuse to back such requests.

5.    Joe Biden takes office as second Catholic president, frequently attending Mass and citing Catholic values and hymns but drawing controversy for supporting legal abortion. U.S. Catholic bishops approve a document on Communion that stops short of calling for withholding the sacrament from politicians who support abortion rights, although some individually say they would do so.

6.    Gallup reports that Americans’ membership in houses of worship drop below 50% for the first time in eight decades that the polling agency has been measuring the subject. Some 47% of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque in 2020, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

7.    Pandemic continues to affect religious observance. Congregations increasingly return to in-person worship, but attendance levels remain short of pre-2020 levels. Many congregations continue pandemic-related outreaches such as expanded food pantries. Saudi Arabia restricts Hajj attendance. Many see large Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in India as factor in a major COVID surge.

8.    Investigators in Canada using ground-penetrating radar find hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools for Indigenous children, prompting new reckonings for the church groups that operated such schools in the United States and Canada.

9.    Popular Bible teacher Beth Moore ends affiliation with Southern Baptist Convention and its publishing arm, dismayed by the “sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC,” the convention’s handling of sex-abuse cases and members’ embrace of President Donald Trump despite his boasts of sexual exploits with women.

10. Southern Baptist Convention, roiled by resignations and leaked documents, tamps down a rightward push at annual meeting; elects president who seeks racial healing; rejects bid to repudiate critical race theory; and OKs probe of its Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse. 

Stories that did not make the Top 10 appear in ranked order below.

11. Forty-three nations issue statement criticizing China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, citing “generalized and systematic violations of human rights, torture, forced sterilization, sexual violence and forced separation of children.”

12. Many faith leaders and groups work to continue momentum from 2020’s protests for racial justice; applaud guilty verdicts in the racially charged murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery; and join in commemorating 100th anniversary of Tulsa Race Massacre.

13. Israel and Hamas fight an 11-day war preceded by Palestinian protests over evictions in Jerusalem and an Israeli police raid of the landmark al-Aqsa Mosque. More than 250 are killed in Gaza and 13 in Israel, many of them civilians.

14. Religious groups resettle Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban rule and advocate for Haitian and other migrants arriving in surges at the Southern border. Advocates chide President Biden for falling short on immigration reform and refugee resettlement goals.

15. In advance of the November climate summit in Glasgow, Pope Francis and other world religious leaders sign a document, “Faith and Science: An Appeal for COP26,” calling for “urgent, radical and responsible action” to reduce carbon emissions, with wealthier nations taking the lead.

16. An independent report estimates that 330,000 children were sexually abused in France over 70 years by Catholic priests or other church-related figures. In Massachusetts, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is charged with sexually assaulting a teen boy in 1974.

17. Pope Francis reimposes curbs on celebrating the Latin Mass, reversing one of his predecessor’s signature decisions, which Francis says is being exploited by Catholics opposed to the Second Vatican Council.

18. U.S. Supreme Court blocks local and statewide temporary bans on religious gatherings imposed by officials in California seeking to limit spread of COVID-19.

19. In run-off elections, Georgia voters give Democrats a U.S. Senate majority, electing the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish senator from the state.

20. Seventeen missionaries and children from Christian Aid Ministries, a U.S.-based conservative Anabaptist organization, are kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang in Haiti.

21. The religious left, energized by a new Democratic-controlled Congress and President Biden’s progressive Catholicism, renews advocacy for programs for the poor, immigrants and racial justice.

22. Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, other Republicans galvanize strong evangelical and other conservative support in state and local elections with calls to assert parental control in schools and bar teaching of critical race theory. CRT becomes a flashpoint of debate in numerous churches and denominations.

23. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sides with a Catholic foster care agency, saying the city of Philadelphia wrongly limited its relationship with the group because its religious views prevent it from working with same-sex couples.

24. Liabilities in hate crimes: A jury orders 17 white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages after being accused of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jews and others in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. U.S. Justice Department agrees to $88 million settlement over the FBI’s failed background check of the gunman in the hate-motivated killings of nine Black worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

25. Supreme Court hears bid by Texas inmate John Henry Ramirez to have a chaplain pray aloud and touch him during his execution. Oklahoma governor commutes death sentence of Julius Jones after faith leaders, others raise doubts about his murder conviction.

26. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announces a new initiative to protect and improve access to sites across the United States considered sacred by Indigenous peoples.

27. Pat Robertson retires as host of the “700 Club” after a half-century of courting controversy, interviewing presidents and other celebrities and developing a large audience on the flagship program on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he turned into a global powerhouse.

28. Religious hate crimes prosecuted: John T. Earnest pleads guilty, gets life sentence in deadly 2019 attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. Nathaniel Veltman is charged with murder after Ontario prosecutors allege he drove his pickup truck into a Muslim family, killing four and wounding one.

29. Several religious congregations mourn losses of members after the collapse of a condominium in Surfside, Fla., kills 98 people — including about a dozen participants at the Shul of Bar Harbour, a nearby Orthodox synagogue.

30. The Rev. Gina Stewart is elected president of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, marking the first time a woman has been chosen for the highest post of a national, historically Black Baptist organization.

Religion Newsmakers of the Year

President Joe Biden, who takes office as second Catholic president, regularly attending Mass and citing Catholic values and hymns, but whose support for legal abortion prompts some bishops to say he should not receive Communion.

Other newsmakers on the ballot, by voting rank

Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic whose early decisions solidify a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court in rulings involving abortion, LGBT rights and pandemic-related restrictions on worship.

The Taliban, who retake control over Afghanistan following the U.S. military withdrawal and reinstate a strict interpretation of Islamic law, 20 years after their post-9/11 ouster by a U.S.-backed coalition.

Beth Moore, the popular Bible teacher who ends her affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention and its publishing arm, dismayed by rampant “sexism & misogyny” in segments of the denomination; the convention’s handling of sex-abuse cases; and members’ embrace of President Donald Trump despite his boasts of sexual exploits with women.

Pope Francis, who cracks down on the Latin Mass, which he says has been exploited by many to foment dissent, and who resumes international travel after major surgery and a 10-day hospitalization.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who becomes the first Native American cabinet secretary, launches investigation of government- and church-run boarding schools for Indigenous children and announces initiative to protect sites deemed sacred by Indigenous peoples.

Pat Robertson, who retires as host of the “700 Club” after a half-century of courting controversy, interviewing presidents and other celebrities and developing a large audience on the flagship program on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he turned into a global powerhouse.###


Christine DiPasquale
Interim Director