In "Amplifying the Conversation,” our former trialoguers returned to reflect on what they have learned and what they think should happen next. Trios (one faith leader, one journalist, one academic) discussed how to address serious problems that plague our professional lives and public understanding: unlearning religious stereotypes and boosting underrepresented voices; preventing, reporting on, and repairing institutional abuse; combatting sensationalism and fatigue; maintaining (or questioning) objectivity, trust, and moral witness; overcoming miscommunication and locating common ground. Over the past three workshops our conversations had drifted to these practical and ethical concerns in our telling religion stories; this trialogue experimented with talk inspiring action. How do we make this conversation larger, louder, and leading to the change we want to see in the world?
Our “amplified” trialogue featured eleven trios’ pre-prepared presentations, two small-group response sessions, and two keynote lectures. We represented three separate but interlinked vocations—journalism, academia, and religion. We wanted to see how conversation could serve to deepen our own understanding of religion and our work with it, and to invite further reflection on how our institutions represent and empower more and more kinds of voices. Academics contributed historical, theological, and ethical perspectives on their researching and teaching religion; media professionals discussed their craft and constraints in covering the faith beat; and religious leaders expanded on their responsibilities to respond to global news events from their positions of leadership, and to hear and tell the stories of their communities.
Our two days’ Conversations Sessions were loosely thematically grouped under four headings:
- Day One’s “Ethics of the Story” considered how we aim to get our stories right and tell them true;
- Day One’s “Citizenship and Professionalism” examined our spiritual and professional duties as citizens of particular nation-states and this particular planet;
- Day Two’s “Stories from Long Ago, Right Now, and the World to Come” focused on key narratives that comprise the human story over last year or the very long haul; and,
- Day Two’s “Your Next Story” provided urgent takeaways about religious literacy, inclusion, and care meant to influence how we tell our next stories.
Mahan Mirza convened our final workshop with a sober description of how Fox News and MSNBC initially covered the October 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel two days before the beginning of our conference. An anchor on Fox described horrific terrorism that necessitated swift elimination of not only Hamas but action against Iran as well, while an MSNBC analyst surprisingly described it as a natural consequence of decades of brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine. Was the story currently happening about terrorism or resistance? Which, if any, religions should be centered? During the Iraq War in 2003, Mirza recalled how news anchors would unfairly quiz Muslim analysts of the Middle East on their “objectivity.” While our Faith in the Story conversations had wrestled with analogous questions about news coverage, the trialogues themselves faced a similar problem – while liberals and progressives were happy to come together to agree and argue with one another, the very setting could alienate many American conservative and right-wing voices. Our shared vocation in storytelling – and our trialogues about this act – were situated by virtue of our religious, professional, political identities, as much by our capacity to recognize an Israeli victim’s innocence as by our uneasy presence on the sacred land of Native peoples – “Palestine by another name.”
Alex Hsu iterated how “Faith in the Story” refers both to our shared dedication to keeping authentic and complex stories about religion in the news and our commitment to the stories we are compelled to tell in our respective vocations, but suggested a third meaning in our common conviction that stories truly matter – that they orient lives and transform worlds, that they are important to get right and tell well. While our conversations had centered on everything from Christian nationalism to church sex abuse scandals to media representations of minority faiths, at the end of the day, we all sought stories that were more accurate, inclusive, and effective. The point of the final conference, he argued, was to consider scaling up our storytelling efforts – adding more people and perspectives, deepening our exploration of where our differences and consensus lie, and growing our audience and impact.
Dalia Fahmy’s keynote, “Overcoming the Lasting Effects of Islamophobia,” described how the present moment could be described as the most “intensely anti-Muslim period in American history,” indexed by mosque shootings, hate crime attacks, discrimination at work and schools, marginalization in politics, and internalized Islamophobia among Muslim youth. These pernicious social effects resulted from the Islamophobia industry fanning anti-Muslim hysteria as an electoral strategy, where inflammatory stories tend to die down after elections end. Counter to these Islamophobic narratives, Fahmy described thousands of idealistic non-Muslim Americans coming to airports across the country to protest Trump’s 2017 “Muslim Ban,” and emphasized Muslim Americans as integral to the fabric of U. S. American history.
In Ethics of the Story, Trio 1 discussed the rich hermeneutic process of helping people see other people, which begins with thinking through one’s own grounding and perspective, and allowing our perspective on others to adjust and grow. Anita Houck described her work in the classroom moving beyond “religious literacy” as Bible trivia toward appreciation of individuals and traditions as dynamic and internally diverse; BeLynn Hollers recounted her work as a journalist in striving to overcome the antagonism and mistrust of religious actors she wanted to give voice to; and Tiauna Webb shared how her work as a Christian faith leader compels her to create fora where she can “pass the mic” so more marginal religious and political voices can be heard and respectfully engaged.
Trio 2 described their work strengthening new media voices on religion in the face of gross institutional and societal failures. Jessica Mesman emphasized a “duty of care" - a term introduced by late colleague Brendan McAllister and shared by the three professions to the victims of gender violence in institutional settings, citing multiple trialoguers from Never Forget; Nate Tinner-Williams outlined the role of ethno-religious media outlets in representing minority (or “minority within a minority”) viewpoints, disrupting mainstream media narratives; and Megan Goodwin described her role in training and supporting scholars and journalists for the work of explicitly public-facing scholarship in professions that are often without much job security or stability.
Trio 3 tackled how to respond ethically to spectacular stories, focusing on the torrent of media coverage of the Dalai Lama’s asking a young boy to “suck [his] tongue” in April. Justin Whitaker described following the evolving media coverage as a reporter attempting to discern the facts of the incident, as commentators weighed in and an anti-Tibetan smear campaign amplified outrage; Ali Hussain explored how social psychology’s “moral foundations theory” could help us understand how the story spread on social networks from India and China to the rest of the world; and Kristel Clayville discussed ethical theories and codes of responsiveness when stories of all kinds can be so rapidly spread.
In our first responses section, participants from the three trialogues were mixed into new groups of six and assigned a set of questions about what “amplifying the conversation” meant to them as a group. Each group focused on one of three sets of questions about amplifying the diversity, scale, and impact of our conversations.
In Citizenship and Professionalism, Trio 4 spoke about the role of religion in our duties to our co-religionists and co-nationals. Nichole Flores shared stories from Charlottesville, where University of Virginia’s association with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson attracted both the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally of August 2017 and local pluralist attempts to memorialize Humayun Khan, a UVA graduate and U.S. Army officer killed in the Iraq War, whose parents were infamously criticized by presidential candidate Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 elections. Bilal Malik discussed building bridges between non-Muslim and Muslim Americans by appealing to the unity of the “Three Abrahamic Faiths,” explaining Qur’anic respect for “people of the book” and his personal attempts to demonstrate this unity at his internationally diverse mosque and in neighboring churches. Both trialoguers thanked their missing trialogue partner, Bob Smietana, for his inspiring reportage.
Trio 5 looked at faith, their professions, and potential collaborations among the professions from both sides. Andrew DeCort saw in stories of God’s creation a mandate to love all humanity as precious siblings; Natalie Avalos described the religious world of indigenous peoples as a web of relations tethering humans, plants, and animals to the land; Roger Childs, from the perspective of an increasingly non-religious Ireland and UK, understood religion as a matter of what people mean it to matter – for spirituality, meaning, and belonging. DeCort idealized faith leaders overcoming enmity and conflict with neighbor-love, Avalos emphasized scholars’ study of indigenous religious traditions needing to decolonize the theoretical frameworks of religious studies, while Childs challenged the stereotype of dully “pious” religious broadcasting by embracing religion’s humanity, humility, and humor. The triad saw the three professions as checking and helping one another, with faith leaders offering wisdom and inspiration, academics digging deeper into topics, and journalists communicating questions and answers up chains of academic or religious authority.
Trio 6 tackled the challenge of Christian nationalism – how it forced them to confront the limits of their professions, or stirred them to change the way they work in order to better confront it. Matthew Cressler anxiously described the scholar’s luxury of delving into something very deeply – for him, the study of white Catholic racism – when the “world is on fire”; Kelsey Dallas recounted herself as a media professional moving into “robot mode” to meet swift deadlines, lacking the time to reflect or opine on the subject she is reporting on; and Richard Baker criticized a corrupted “niceness” that has prevented the faithful from practicing genuine generosity and self-scrutiny in pursuit of societal moral formation. The three trio members pushed each other to recognize their limitations as human beings, in order to better exercise their gifts.
In his keynote address, G. Marcus Cole defended religious freedom as a core wellspring for pluralistic flourishing in the United States, as well as a matter of life and death around the world. He argued that a “culture of disbelief,” and political ideologies as “new religions” have infringed dangerously upon settled US jurisprudence protecting free expression of religious practice. A “cult of secularism” has misunderstood robust expressions of faith as inimical to human flourishing and discriminatory against women and sexual minorities. So we must work to persuade citizens that the opposite is true, that US law protects discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation due to religious convictions, and, by instructing the public about the tremendous work of religious philanthropy great and small, that “faith in action is love.”
In Stories from Long Ago, Right Now, and the World to Come, Trio 7 discussed how to highlight Indigenous rights in our stories about American religious life. Jack Jenkins discussed how Indigenous solidarity movements from Idle No More in 2012 and Standing Rock in 2016 captured more and more attention from the press, resulting in accelerating public reckoning with the role of Doctrine of Discovery in the ongoing colonization of the Western hemisphere. Celene Ibrahim discussed teaching about Indigenous justice struggles in her ethics classroom, exposing her students to the history of residential schools, and teaching the role of churches and Indigenous expressions of faith and spirituality in passing and recognizing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Shannon Rivers challenged the divine authority of the conquerors to exact tribute and obedience of Indigenous peoples whose land they stole, demanding that the University of Notre Dame, among other institutions, name and work to repair harm from centuries of colonization.
Trio 8 explained why we cannot think about political polarization, reparations, or development without also thinking about religion. Russell Johnson discussed religion as a social identity that can assist in dichotomizing a political conversation, as well as offering many potential resources for challenging “us versus them” frameworks and fostering productive conflict. Olivia Wilkinson discussed how criticism of the “white savior trope” – a recognition of development’s history in missionary efforts – has inflected how international development is scrutinized, studied, and practiced, especially with respect to engagement with local religious actors. Finally, Michael Nabors discussed religion’s call to accept responsibility and care for the less fortunate, marginal, and suffering peoples of the world, and, therefore, reparative efforts at justice. The three interrogated each other about religion’s ability to facilitate relationality on both person-to-person and global scales, especially through the transfer of money and power.
Trio 9 wrestled with “the odds and the stakes” of our professions’ educational efforts with religion. Kathryn Joyce introduced Jay Rosen’s suggestion that journalists devote less attention to political horse races (“the odds”) and more attention to how candidates would govern (“the stakes”), and criticized as inadequate to protecting democratic institutions the journalist’s authoritative “view from nowhere” that balances the legitimacy of “both sides.” Nikhil Mandalaparthy shifted our gaze to contention over California’s proposed caste discrimination bill SB403, where conservative Hindu groups successfully promoted their account of the bill as offensive to Hindus through mainstream media over alternative voices, who argued that the bill was necessary. Finally, Emily Crews counterposed the fierce odds religion academics face in establishing their careers against the awesome stakes in helping students and broader publics to “think about religion” more critically.
Finally, in Your Next Story, Trio 10 elucidated what was missing in prevailing narratives about religious literacy. Abla Hasan emphasized the importance of helping students work closely with the text of the Qur’an in warding off tendentious interpretations; Chrissy Stroop demonstrated the glaring absence of nonreligious voices in both mainstream opinion and news coverage, betraying a dearth of respect for and understanding about the non- and disaffiliated; and, finally, Alan Levinovitz suggested that we as religion educators should also embrace a “negative definition” of religious literacy that calls upon us to abandon our political “idolatries” in order to seek what we do not know or cannot say for sure: he spoke about vicious antisemitic claims, some directed at him personally, as easy to reflexively dismiss but better to reframe as material for further study.
Trio 11 tackled the question of who is left out of our stories. Sarah Ventre highlighted reporting on rural Afghan women, a sexual assault victim enmeshed in psychedelic healing culture, and non-retired Americans that live in trailer parks, in order to underscore the journalist’s own vulnerability as critical to deep-dive, time-intensive reporting on religion. Ann Gleig described the immense value of attending to the stories of abuse survivors in the context of convert American Buddhism, where upper-class white men tend to speak for everybody. And Joshua Rubin lamented that after having spent ridiculous amounts of time looking at sermons in progressive temples and synagogues across the country insisting on solidarity with the State of Israel in the just developing war, the voice he deemed missing was God’s. Finally, Peter Cajka of Trio 2 delineated the intellectual worldview of Richard Sipe (1932-2018), the “Catholic sexpert” who was able to play a central role in shaping public understanding of priestly sexual abuse, and Megan Goodwin and Jessica Mesman joined Cajka to address conundrums of covering abuse cases responsibly.
For the final session, the absence of our late colleague, the Northern Irish mediator Brendan McAllister, was felt as we continued to talk through our disagreements among ourselves and across borders. The trios reflected on what they learned from each others’ presentations and how to adapt their conversations into written form.