Over the last few weeks, I have been part of conversations around the globe with people of different faiths, many of them sharing deeply personal stories of their own spirituality. It has been refreshing to hear these stories, but also striking in their unusualness. Very rarely do we discuss faith openly. In America, in fact, it is much more common to discuss sexuality with friends and colleagues, using pronouns and acronyms to clearly mark us and the communities with which we identify.
Why are people reluctant to discuss faith in the public square?
As I reflect upon my own history of faith, growing up in a Methodist and Jewish household, I can identify fear as part of the reason. As a child, I experienced brushes with xenophobia that must have left a mark: in one instance, a seven-year-old peer and son of family friends called me a dirty Jew and told me I killed Jesus.
Several days later, the child’s father brought him to our house to apologize to my family, but a seven-year-old could not have arrived at this prejudice on his own. The family was ashamed of their public bigotry, but they still lacked an understanding – or desire to understand – ‘the other.’
Looking back, I can’t help but draw parallels to today’s highly polarized environment, where salacious headlines and fear drive clicks, ad dollars, and behavior. Where the stories we read about ‘the other’ are rooted in conflict, never understanding. Where algorithms force us deeper into closed groups that view outsiders as suspicious or even threatening.
Can there be a solution to this challenge? A way to elevate stories of understanding or highlight the ways in which our differences in faith and background weave a tapestry instead of unraveling our societies?
I believe there is, and it is one that brings together two seemingly disparate sectors: the faith community and the media. Research shows that the majority of stories in the news about issues of faith are rooted in scandal, but there are so many overlooked stories that spotlight the critical community-building work inspired by faith traditions, stories that would help people understand their neighbors of different faiths better. The more we see one another in positive lights, the more clearly we can see our commonalities.
Specific to this moment, there is a rich tradition of faith-based community support and humanitarian aid. In a time of war, how can we better showcase the work groups across the religious spectrum are doing to support Ukrainian and Afghan refugees? In an era of global pandemic, where are our faith leaders to discuss the ways in which spirituality can support those in the most need? Ample research shows that both scenarios are happening, yet the reporting on either is mostly found in the religious media.
This is not the fault of either sector.
In a recent conversation in the Middle East, academics, journalists, and leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities discussed the need for more of their voices to proactively engage with their journalist counterparts. Reporters often rely on the sources they already know or who actively seek them out. There is an opportunity for leaders from all faith communities to collaborate with journalists, educating not only them, but their readers who are hungry for understanding in a time of confusion. The more access is offered in both directions, the more the historic mistrust between the two sectors will be quelled.
One of the most moving points made during these discussions was the power a faith background can give to journalism. While newsrooms often eschew conversations of religion to avoid bias and pursue the factually pure, the fact of the matter is we all hold our own points of view, and faith can provide a vehicle for the compassion that allows us to better understand the other. It need not be an agent of conflict or fear.
When I was growing up and experienced others’ fear of my background, there was a clear lack of understanding of not only my faith, but the rich culture that the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faiths actually share. In many places around the world, these shared cultures are increasingly celebrated, leading to a society that is more civil and a public discourse that is more representative of the people. I hope that the media can help us showcase this celebration. Even when there are stories of conflict, understanding the nuances of our belief systems can ensure that we get to know ‘the other’ and in doing so, reduce the misunderstanding and fear that drives strife.
In this moment, our social fabric feels frayed but there are positive stories to tell and important voices that must be heard. Together, the faith and media communities can help advance a deeper understanding by working together to tell the stories of what we have in common, mending the great tapestry that is colored by our differences.
- The article was originally published in Career Ahead April 2022 issue.
Lindsay Singleton is a social impact leader, media personality and communicator based in Washington, DC. She works with Fortune 100 companies and nonprofits to foster cross-sector collaboration and frequently appears in Fast Company, Fortune, and Forbes.