12/27/2012 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Bending Toward Justice, New Year's Day and the Moral Universe

At their best, faith, religion and spiritual practice offer ways to open our eyes, and our hearts, and to live with hope even when we feel anguish and fear. The man-made tragedies of the past year -- from Aurora to Oak Creek to Newtown -- could persuade us that the human cause is futile and justice is an illusion. Fortunately, these events alone do not define us, or the year we contemplate as 2013 arrives.

As we reflect on sorrows and loss, we can also count our joys and gains. The year 2012 saw Americans reject fear and choose optimism as they re-elected President Obama. His second term will mean four more years of higher concern for our fellow Americans and for the planet we share with 6.7 billion neighbors.

The past year also brought an avalanche of good news in the fight for equality, as marriage rights were extended to gays and lesbians in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington State. And while the Supreme Court's decision to hear two key cases on equality does not guarantee more progress, it does mean that the nation will continue to face the issue in a serious and deliberate way.

Remarkably, 2012's most important developments in religion had more to do with the actions of ordinary believers than anything said and done by their leaders. People of all faiths, for example, accepted Mitt Romney's Mormonism as a matter of religious conviction and regarded it as a non-issue during the election. No one had to preach about this response. People just did it. Americans also rejected attempts to sew religious conflict over the health care reform act. Turnout for a national religious rally against Obamacare was abysmal, and the male clergy who railed against the plan's treatment of contraception made themselves seem out of touch and irrelevant.

The year 2012 also brought many victories for ordinary souls who challenged authoritarian religious institutions in the courts. The most important of these cases ended with the criminal conviction of Catholic Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia. Imprisoned for covering-up crimes against children, Lynn's fate proved that victims of clergy sexual abuse can find justice. It also signaled to authorities who once lived above the law, that they no longer enjoy such extraordinary privilege.

The efforts of those who fight clergy abuse have contributed significantly to big changes in the way we all regard the issue of sexual abuse. Where once victims felt ashamed and rejected they now find acceptance and understanding "The climate is so much better for survivors than it was a decade ago when they felt isolated and like a freak," noted David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire in an interview with Reuters. "Almost everyone knows this happens to other people now. It's not nearly as stigmatizing."

A decades-long campaign of behalf of clergy child abuse victims has also changed the procedures and priorities of organizations that care for children. At schools, daycare centers, churches and other places, children are now taught to recognize maltreatment and report it. Thousands of institutions now have procedures for screening workers and ensuring that children are protected. When complaints do arise, they are now routinely referred to civil authorities.

Difficult as it may be to keep in mind, especially when killers attack schools, we have been making progress on behalf of our children. The last few years have seen declines in infant mortality, premature births and teen births. At the end of this year the Foundation for Child Development noted that overall child well-being, as measured by dozens of indexes, is up more than 5 percent since 2001. Coming amid rising poverty, these improvements seem to be the result of families and communities showing greater concern for children. Educational achievement is up. Violent crimes committed against children are down. We're doing something right.

Altogether, Americans seem to have applied their spiritual, social and political values in positive ways that can give us hope for the future. This was done, for the most part, without preachers, rabbis, priests or imams directing us or admonishing us.

In an address that was really one long prayer, Martin Luther King recalled the 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker to note that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." At the end of one year and the dawn of another, we can summon the courage to say "Amen."