For a nation that is now, according to many observers, more secular than it's ever been, religion was on a lot of Americans' minds in 2004.
Religion, faith, values, and morality were in the news - both good news and bad - on a regular basis throughout the year, from hard news on the front pages to spiritual angles on entertainment stories.
A poll of my 260 colleagues in the Religion Newswriters Assocation, the only organization representing mainstream journalists who cover religion on a daily basis, resulted in a tie for the top stories of 2004: Mel Gibson's graphic film about the hours leading to Jesus' crucifixion, and the role of faith in the presidential election.
Both The Passion of The Christ and the importance that voters put on the morals of the presidential candidates caught many "experts" by surprise.
Gibson's relatively low-budget movie about the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, with dialogue entirely in Latin and Aramaic, ended up as the third-biggest box office hit of the year, grossing more than $370 million.
Many churches and religious organizations saw the movie as manna from heaven, an innovative tool for bringing the Gospel to the masses unlike anything that had been done before.
And while many pollsters predicted the White House vote would hinge on money, jobs, and the Iraq war, they discovered that Americans were more concerned with President George W. Bush's moral values than his economic or foreign policies.
The rest of the top national religion stories, according to the RNA poll, included the strident church debates over homosexual marriages and ordination of gays and lesbians; the Catholic bishops who said they would deny Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians; the Supreme Court's upholding of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; ongoing disputes over the morality of the Iraq war and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the millions spent by the U.S. Roman Catholic Church to settle clerical sexual-abuse lawsuits.
Such national issues were seen on the local scene as well, with Ohio turning out to be the pivotal state in the presidential race and putting George W. and his Christian world view back in the White House.
Many local churches sponsored screenings of The Passion of The Christ, using the movie as an evangelical outreach.
There were numerous other big news stories in northwest Ohio that were religious in nature.
The ink still hasn't dried on one of the most hotly debated religious news stories, Rossford High School's decision to cancel a scheduled school-time concert by Christian rock band Pawn.
The cancellation made national headlines and fired up the fervent debate about where and when to draw the line on separation of church and state.
The whole scenario proved to be an unexpected public-relations gift for Pawn, a solid rock band (pardon the pun) that had been working its way up the ladder in Christian music.
Time will tell if the 15 minutes of fame will clear the way for Pawn's next few moves. But anyone curious about the band can catch Pawn in person, for a mere $3, on New Year's Eve, when the group performs at the Mill Youth Stop on Glendale Avenue.
Meanwhile, the biggest Christian rock band ever to come from Toledo, Sanctus Real, continues to cruise along at a high speed. The four-man group topped the Christian rock charts twice this year, crisscrossed the states on concert tours, and even played a few shows in Europe. Sanctus Real's sophomore album for Sparrow Records, Fight the Tide, was named No. 7 on a best-of-2004 list by Christianity Today's online music site.
On a somber note, another national news story emanating from Toledo was the April arrest of a Toledo priest in the 1980 murder of a Catholic nun. The world's attention was riveted on Toledo when cold-case detectives arrested the Rev. Gerald Robinson and charged him with murdering Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in a hospital chapel 24 years ago. Father Robinson is free on property bond, awaiting a trial.
The Toledo Catholic Diocese also made headlines when it settled 19 lawsuits filed by 23 victims of clerical sexual abuse. The victims received settlements totaling $1.19 million, according to diocesan officials.
Among the notable arrivals and departures in Toledo this year, Bishop Demetri Khoury, who was arrested and convicted for fondling a woman in a Michigan casino, retired as bishop of Toledo and the Midwest Diocese of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
His successor, Bishop Mark Maymon, an American-born convert to Orthodoxy, officially takes office Jan. 1.
Barry Leff, a black belt in tae kwon do, a flight instructor, and a scuba divemaster, came to Toledo from California for a job - not as a secret agent, but as rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel.
Rabbi Leff's Conservative Jewish congregation in West Toledo also announced this year that it sold its building and property to the University of Toledo and will move to Sylvania within three years.
Pastor Tony D. Scott celebrated his 30th anniversary as pastor of Cathedral of Praise in October by announcing that the church has purchased the sprawling Monclova Township building that once served as headquarters of the former Aeroquip-Vickers Inc.
Cathedral of Praise paid a reported $7 million for the 120,000-square-foot building and is planning to hold its first services there on Easter Sunday.
The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, already an eye-catching landmark alongside two Interstate highways, got a new golden crown last month.
The Middle Eastern-style mosque's 30-foot-high existing white dome, which was structurally sound but in constant need of touch-ups because of surface cracks, was covered with a gold-colored geodesic aluminum dome.
And earlier this month, local Muslims welcomed Bridges TV, the first network designed specifically for American Muslims. It went on the air nationwide at the end of November and was quickly picked up for broadcast in northwest Ohio by Buckeye CableSystem.
David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him at 419-724-6154 or email@example.com.