'Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress took to the pulpit to offer a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced.
The bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be yet another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.
Inquiring minds wanted to know if the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas was suggesting that the president was truly You Know Anti-who.
"I want you to hear me tonight: I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist. I am not saying that at all," said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a "theological cult."
"President Obama is not the Antichrist. But what I am saying is this: The course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist."
That's pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion-and-politics beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded "don't know" when asked to identify the president's faith.
The good news was that a mere 11 percent in that poll said Obama is a Muslim -- down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010. The president has, of course, repeatedly professed that he is a liberal, mainline Christian.
Could church-state affairs get any hotter?
Amazingly the answer was "yes," with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called "morning-after pills."
The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the "inculcation of religious values as its purpose," primarily employs "persons who share its religious tenets" and primarily "serves persons who share its religious tenets."
America's Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried foul, claiming that under the leadership of Obama, the U.S. Justice Department and other branches of the national government were trying to separate "freedom of worship" in religious sanctuaries from the First Amendment's more sweeping protection of "free exercise of religion" in public life.
In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of the Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year's top religion news story. Meanwhile, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was voted the year's top religion newsmaker -- from a ballot that did not contain the president's name.
The story I ranked No. 2 overall didn't make it into the association's Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation's right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years -- or even months -- ahead.
Here's the rest of the RNA Top 10 list:
-- Research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that religiously unaffiliated people -- the so-called "nones" -- make up the fastest-growing religious group in modern America, approaching 20 percent of the population.
-- The online trailer of an anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslims," is alleged to have inspired violence in several countries, including a fatal attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya.
-- White House candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith turns out to be a non-issue for white evangelical voters, who support him more strongly than they did 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
-- Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes the first senior U.S. Catholic official found guilty of hiding priestly child abuse, followed by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo.
-- Vatican officials harshly criticize liberal leaders among U.S. nuns, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its history of criticism of church teachings on sexuality, abortion and the all-male priesthood.
-- Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.
-- Episcopal Church leaders adopt a trial ritual for blessing same-sex couples.
-- A gunman police describe as a neo-Nazi kills six Sikhs and wounds three others in a suburban Milwaukee temple.
-- The Southern Baptist Convention unanimously elects its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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