In terms of religion news, 1988 was the year after.

The news in 1987 was dominated by the sin-and-mascara soaked fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker, and the resulting war that rocked the kingdoms of religious broadcasting."Pearlygate" easily topped the Religion Newswriters Association's poll to determine last year's top religion news events. Not even a full-scale invasion of the United States by Pope John Paul II could top Jim and Tammy.

In the year after, just when it seemed the plot of the religious television melodrama might cool down - another star fell.

In 1988, it was the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart's turn to sink into the muck of a sex scandal. Newspapers, magazine covers and television screens carried the unforgettable image of Swaggart's face, twisted and wet with tears, as he sought forgiveness from his wife, his Louisiana faithful and the millions of viewers who bankrolled his rise in the Electric Church.

The bayou superstar eventually walked away from his denomination, the Assemblies of God, cutting short his rehabilitation to return to the pulpit in an attempt to fan the flames of a suddenly cool global ministry.

The Religion Newswriters Association has picked Swaggart's fall as 1988's top religion news event and also voted him the first annual Religion Newsmaker of the Year. This new poll was created to determine the individual who the association's members believe most dominated - for better or for worse - the previous year's religion news.

Swaggart's fall was important, but it seems to me that this flashy media circus might not have been 1988's most important religion news event. Not that I believe the media has truly explored the changes in American religion which led to what we now call "televangelism." Far from it. Religious television is now a given in the power structure of American religion and the secular media still is not taking this subject very seriously.

It seems to me the Swaggart story was part of 1987. Perhaps 1988 will turn out not to have been the "year after."

Perhaps 1988 was the year before a major change on the most emotional religious and political issue on the American scene - abortion.

One abortion-related story did place in the RNA poll: the arrests of more than 3,000 protesters in "Operation Rescue" anti-abortion demonstrations in Atlanta and nearly 30 other American cities. "Operation Rescue" placed seventh in the 1988 poll.

Led by their bishops, many American Catholics now link a "pro-life" stance against abortion with work against nuclear arms, the death penalty, handguns and cuts in government programs to aid the poor, especially women and children.

An event overlooked by many took place on Sept. 13, 1988. Justice Harry Blackmun, speaking in Little Rock, Ark., asked the question: "Will Roe vs. Wade go down the drain?" His answer: "I think there's a very distinct possibility that it will, this (court) term. You can count the votes."

Other abortion-related news took place in 1988, including important medical debates on research involving cells from aborted fetuses and a controversial "abortion pill." Meanwhile, many mainline groups - such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the American Baptist Convention - softened liberal stances on this issue.

What will 1989 bring? The answer could change the lives of millions.

The Religion Newswriters Association's top events:

(1) Jimmy Swaggart defrocked.

(2) A controversial film by director Martin Scorcese, "The Last Temptation of Christ," sparks nationwide protests.

(3) The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts elects the Rev. Barbara Harris as the first woman bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

(4) Religious Right backs George Bush for president. Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson run spirited campaigns.

(5) Celebrations mark the millennium of Christianity in what is now the Soviet Union.

(6) Carbon-14 test pins medieval date on the Shroud of Turin.