How Faith Molds Society – And Why Media Needs to Care

Religion Is Everywhere. So Why Doesn’t Media Reflect That?

On any given day at the corner of 56th and 6th Avenue in New York City, a long winding line waits eagerly for a warm halal meal. In 1990 three Egyptians, looking for new opportunities and a better life, set up a food cart selling hot dogs. They quickly recognized that very few fast-food options were available to the Muslim community and opened the first halal food cart under a faith-motivated trademark. Halal Guys is now one of the most recognized food carts in New York and has a franchise with over 100 stores worldwide. It’s hard to imagine Manhattan without their unique faith and food contribution1.

More than one fast-food founder has been motivated by faith. In-N-Out is among the most successful hamburger chains in the US. When its founder, Harry Snyder, died unexpectedly, his brother Rich took over, building on his brother's core vision of quality food at a reasonable price by adding a new element to the mix – his faith. Each hamburger wrapper, and eventually every French-fry container and soda cup, now have Bible references printed on them, a reflection of Rich Snyder’s leadership style centered on deeply held convictions2. Similarly, the popular fast fashion chain Forever 21 prints the scripture John 3:16 on the bottom of every shopping bag, and Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays3.

These are just a couple ways that everyday American consumers encounter faith in their daily lives – whether or not they adhere to the same tradition. But these trends extend far beyond the United States and Abrahamic faith traditions. And while it’s common to encounter expressions of faith in American civil society, it’s even more prevalent in many places beyond its borders. Faith plays a major role in civil society globally, with 84% of the world identifying as religious.4 By 2050, Christians and Muslims will constitute half of the world’s population.5

Given their ubiquity, and their importance to the lives of adherents, one might expect faith traditions and religious communities to be frequently reported in media and portrayed in entertainment. Yet, aside from local-interest stories in regional and local media – which has a vital role to play in shifting coverage of religion6– stories about religion frequently center on frauds, hypocrites, scandals, corruption, and greed. These stories are newsworthy in part because individuals of faith are expected to distinguish themselves on grounds of integrity and morality. Yet sensational and lurid stories about religious communities attract readers because they’re shocking, and because they often have great impacts on the lives of those both inside and outside the community.

What we learn from these stories is that religiosity does not guarantee morality. As Mustafa Akyol, author of The Islamic Jesus, explained in a 2017 New York Times article, “Religion can work in two fundamentally different ways: It can be a source of self-education, or it can be a source of self-glorification. Self-education can make people more moral, while self-glorification can make them considerably less moral.”7

Yet the positive, transformative contributions of faith communities to society, business, and culture often go untold. In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish between the values promoted by many religions – loving neighbors, serving communities, working toward good for all – and the deplorable actions of individuals. This can have profound effects on how the broader culture understands its religious communities, and how religious people are treated. At its worst, the effects can include hateful rhetoric, exclusion, violence, and great harm.

Religion is too important to get wrong in media, one of the main forces that shapes people’s perceptions of one another profoundly. Understanding the role that faith plays in civil society, and ways in media might do a better job of telling a nuanced story, is vital in today’s pluralistic and often divided world.

This report seeks to briefly accomplish three tasks. First, it lays out a brief, broad understanding of religion’s role in maintaining a society and working toward justice. Second, it explores what happens when faith and religion is misrepresented or under-represented in the media. And third, it offers reflections on the media’s vital role in promoting religious literacy and accuracy, both for the good of society and to regain badly-needed trust in journalism across social spheres.

The Economy of Faith: Scale and Influence

Religion is not just a hobby that some people choose to indulge in. Rather, it’s a social structure that orders the lives of adherents, giving them a framework through which to understand the world and encouraging them to engage in activities directed toward bettering those around them.

A vital role faith groups play comes in providing essential services that keep the social fabric of society woven together, even acting as a place for people with differing beliefs to find common ground. In a 2023 interview, Interfaith America President Eboo Patel described it this way

In any hospital in America at any hour, there are people from very different religious identities – a Muslim surgeon with a Jewish anesthesiologist, with a Mormon nurse, with a Jehovah’s Witness social worker, with a Baptist who is sanitizing the room at a hospital started by a Catholic social order like the Dominicans or the Jesuits, that is run by an agnostic who grew up Buddhist. And every single one of them before they walk into a surgery is having their own kind of moment of prayer or reflection or connection with what they call God. That’s what we see as interfaith work.8

The faith-based mandate to care for the vulnerable and poor leads religious groups to care for those who need resources and protection the most. For example, United Way is one of the U.S.’s largest charities, and like most of the top 100 charities in the country, it’s a faith-based organization.9 (Others in the top five include St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the Salvation Army.) Started as an interfaith initiative between a priest, two ministers, and a rabbi to help those in need of welfare and healthcare services, United Way currently serves 48 million people worldwide every year, with over 1.5 million volunteers, 6.8 million donors, 45,000 corporate partners, and 1,100 communities.10 Those numbers show how large the need – and the impact – truly is, and the kind of effect that faith-based charities can have on society at large, not just those who attend houses of worship. 

Six of the nine approved refugee resettlement agencies in the United States are faith-based, continually advocating for refugee communities with business models informed by individuals of faith.11 These agencies help to settle, house, feed, clothe, and support the 125,000 refugees who come to the United States each year. Similarly, many faith communities worked quickly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Sikh community in Calgary, who opened their doors to feed thousands of people each day with a warm meal through their “No Hungry Tummies” initiative.12 When disaster strikes, faith-groups are frequently the first to respond, including organizations such as Islamic Relief, Catholic Relief Services, the Mennonite Central Committee, the LDS Humanitarian Philanthropies, and Jewish Coalition for Relief. 

Furthermore, faith can play a critical role in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. For instance, a 2019 study found that “73% of addiction treatment programs in the USA include a spirituality-based element, as embodied in the 12-step programs and fellowships initially popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous, the vast majority of which emphasize reliance on God or a Higher Power to stay sober.”13

Serving others is a common goal of religious communities, but it’s not the only role they perform in society. Religion also motivates public servants and activists, and has for centuries. While that fact can be controversial, it’s worth examining.

How Faith Transforms the Public Square

According to a 2019 Pew survey, the majority of American adults, despite seeing religion as a force for good in society, want faith to stay out of politics.14 Yet prominent figures across the political and cultural spectrum see this as something that’s not only difficult, but unwise.

In a 2006 keynote address, then-senator Barack Obama said:

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square . . . Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So, to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.15

Similarly, the sociologist Peter Berger, an early proponent of secularism, changed his views late in life. “I came to the conclusion some years ago that to replace secularization theory—to explain religion in the modern world—we need the theory of pluralism,” he told an interviewer in 2013.16 “Modernity does not necessarily produce secularity. It necessarily produces pluralism, by which I mean the coexistence in the same society of different worldviews and value systems. That changes the status of religion.”

Pluralism is the goal of efforts surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion, a major focus in many workplaces centering on enabling employees to bring their full identities to work. Yet these efforts – which necessarily include religious diversity – must also extend to the sports field, the podiums of public debate, mainstream journalism, and social media, and expressions of religious identity have not always kept pace with other identity markers. For instance, Muslim professional female soccer players have only recently been allowed to wear the hijab in FIFA sanctioned matches.17 There is much work to be done. 

The root question in many of these cases deals with morality and justice. Is it right for some people to find preferential treatment over others? How ought we to treat one another? When is it right to change the status quo, and how do we measure this? What’s right, and what’s wrong?

Much of faith’s answers to these questions stem from holy texts and traditions, which teach believers to love their neighbors, help the stranger, and practice forgiveness. These teachings are reinforced by the culture of faith communities, teachings in the home, and one’s personal spiritual journey. Faith continues to be the bedrock of moral thought and action for billions of people around the world. 

For centuries, leaders have understood that when rightly practiced, religion plays a vital role in maintaining and preserving morality in both the public and private spheres, and that the two are virtually inextricable from one another on a societal level. In his Farewell Address, delivered in 1796, George Washington underlined this point: 

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason, and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.18.

Indeed, the 1964 American Civil Rights Movement was led by a coalition of men and women dedicated to shattering the bonds of systemic racism that shackled the United States from its inception. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others knew that faith played a critical role in their outlook on social change. In a 2015 interview, the philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West explained how King’s vision confronted and challenged American society:

The American Dream is individualistic. King's dream was collective. The American Dream says, “I can engage in upward mobility and live the good life.” King's dream was fundamentally Christian. His commitment to radical love had everything to do with his commitment to Jesus of Nazareth, and his dream had everything to do with community, with a “we” consciousness that included poor and working people around the world, not just Black people.19

King’s sentiments are shared by many activists today, including people like Rev. Jennifer Bailey, who leads The People’s Supper, an initiative dedicated to building “trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives” through community dinners. Rev. Bailey has helped to bring over 10,000 people to dinner tables across over 100 communities. Many more members of faith communities are actively working toward justice, peace, and greater understanding.

Yet at times, media can be the force that shapes people’s imaginations about those who belong to faiths and communities other than their own.

The Very Real Perils of Misrepresenting Faith

An imbalance in the focus of media stories about religion can manifest as misinformation or simplistic depictions of a community. Faith misrepresentation happens in overt and subtle forms, from misinformation on television to lack of complex representation to explicit prejudice. Wrong or incomplete portrayals – whether from social media, news, or entertainment – of what a religious community believes or practices can lead to shifts in public opinion that normalize aggression or discrimination. In more severe instances, bias can lead to persecution, physical violence, and destruction of property. Examples abound from around the world.

Take, for instance, the Sikh population in England. In October 2022, the UK Home Office released their annual data on hate crimes, which reported a 37% increase in religion related hate crimes, alongside an enormous increase of violence against the Sikh population.20 Dr. Jasjit Singh, associate professor at the University of Leeds’ school of philosophy, religion and history of science, attributes the rise in hate crimes to media rhetoric. “The shocking hate crime data highlights an urgent need for the government to tackle hate rhetoric in the media and in public discourse, including facilitating discussions in schools about the drivers of hate crimes,” he writes.21

Among growing misrepresentation and misunderstanding about Sikhs in Britain, two Sikh teenagers were followed in Leicester and assaulted in March 2022, their turbans yanked off during the attack.22 Dr. Singh further elaborated

Whenever I have delivered assemblies on Sikhs in Britain to schools around the UK, both students and teachers are shocked about the violent incidents which turban and patka wearing Sikh boys are often subjected to. The subsequent normalization of hate crime among many Sikhs in Britain as “something which just happens” as a member of a visible minority community is simply not acceptable and requires all statutory organizations to take this matter seriously.23

These problems extend far beyond the UK. For an extreme example of the perils of misrepresentation, we can look to the Rohingya Muslims, who live in Myanmar, where the majority of people are Buddhist.24 For decades, Rohingya were misrepresented in media and by the state government, leading to horrific crimes against humanity and genocide. 

In 1962 a military coup took control in Myanmar, immediately canceling public programs that were produced or broadcasted by Rohingya Muslims. The federal government then confiscated national IDs, driving some 200,000 Rohingya from the country. They were eventually allowed to return but had to register their citizenship as foreigners. In 1982, new ID laws systematically excluded the Rohingya. When the Burmese started to petition for democratic change, the government launched the “Clean and Beautiful Nation” campaign encouraging the persecution of Rohingya. In 1992, another wave of 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to seek refuge. By the mid-2000s the government required Rohingya families to take registration photos in an attempt to monitor and regulate these families. 

In 2011, new democratic reforms eased restrictions on Rohingya, introducing exciting new technologies like Facebook and social media messaging. Unfortunately, Facebook was used as a tool to spread misinformation about Rohingya and organize persecution. 

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial summarized the hate speech this way:

The Burmese government used state-run media and state-sanctioned social media channels to convey an official message of discrimination against the Rohingya. Official Facebook pages from several government offices have been involved. They include the office of the de facto head of the Burmese government, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the head of the military, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Burmese citizens shared and commented on these social media posts by extremist public figures, soldiers, and Buddhist monks.25

By 2016, the Burmese government was organizing and perpetrating mass crimes against the Rohingya including mass rape, burning down villages, and executions. Recently the Rohingya have sued Meta (the company that owns Facebook and Instagram), alleging that misinformation, incitement of violence, and misrepresentation caused the subsequent genocide.26

The consequences of misrepresentation go far beyond news and social media, extending into the entertainment sector. In 2021, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report entitled “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies.”27 Surveying Muslim representation across 200 movies from the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, the report shows that 39% of portrayals of Muslims in top films were as perpetrators of violence. Across the top 200 movies, Muslim characters were portrayed less than 20% of the time, despite the fact that the Muslim community makes up 1.8 billion people worldwide, nearly a quarter of humanity. 

Furthermore, these statistics only account for when Muslims appear on screen. The number of Muslim characters who even have speaking parts reveals how wide the gap is between entertainment and reality. The study “identified a total of 8,965 speaking characters in the 200 top-grossing films between 2017 and 2019 . . . of these, 1.6% were Muslim and 98.4% were not Muslim.”28 The report underscores that “plot lines that center violent terrorist characters not only inaccurately depict Muslims by creating a false persona but also flatten and silence the aspirational integrity of artists, their creative visions, and the abundance of talent present in Muslim communities.” 

Misrepresentation of faith in media can lead people to violate freedom of religion or belief, a human right that underpins democracy as we know it. In many countries where freedom of religion or belief is violated, the underlying mechanism catalyzing persecution is hate speech that is frequently driven by misrepresentation in media. Accurate and thoughtful representation matters.

Regaining Trust and Religious Literacy

Yet even when a member of a religious community isn’t directly targeted for their beliefs as a result of lopsided media coverage, there are effects that ought to concern journalists. The 2022 Global Faith and News Media Study from HarrisX and Faith and Media Initiative29 (FAMI) found that there is a global concern on the issue of faith misrepresentation. From a 9,489-person sample size, 61% of respondents reported that media perpetuates faith-based stereotypes, and 43% believe this media approach creates unease and anxiety. 78% believe that religion should receive the same attention as race and gender.

Seeing one’s own faith misrepresented or simply ignored in the media can reduce trust in journalism. Such a mistrust leaves people vulnerable to bad actors, biased media, and outright lies. A 2022 Pew survey found that Americans under the age of 30 are as likely or more likely to trust news sources they find on social media as traditional edited and vetted independent journalism.30 Furthermore, partisan divides have widened in media trust over recent years.31

While self-reflection is necessary on the part of media, this data should concern those who work in the tumultuous landscape as well. One way to regain the waning trust of the public may simply be to tell the stories that represent the world they see around them – one where faith and religious groups play a key role in the fabric of their community, and where their own religious beliefs are represented with nuance and fairness. In the Gallup Faith and Wellness report, Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, does not believe that these changes can happen overnight. She says, “Forty years ago, in likely a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, we threw out all religion from the public square. And we actually became radically exclusive; exclusive of the many vibrant faith traditions to the harm of our society in two ways. First, we became spiritual non-conversant as a society, to the point where many people do not even know how to have a deeply interested discussion in one another’s spiritual life. We have lost a fluid language for spiritual life.”  

In other words, we live in a world that is, on the whole, religiously illiterate. A 2010 Pew Research Forum survey – which, perhaps surprisingly, found that agnostics and atheists perform best on tests of religious knowledge – revealed that the broader American public struggles to understand religion.32 

Scholars use the term “religious illiteracy” to identify the inability to accurately describe or critically engage with faith. Harvard Divinity School professor Dr. Diane L. Moore developed a definition of religious literacy adopted by the American Academy of Religion: 

Religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Specifically, a religiously literate person will possess:

  • A basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts.
  • The ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.33

Moore writes that we can tackle misrepresentation by teaching three principles. First, religions are internally diverse, not uniform. Second, religions evolve and change, rather than being ahistorical and static – in other words, what a religious group did or believed in the past does not necessarily represent its present state. And finally, religious influences are woven throughout all dimensions of culture; they don’t exist in isolated context, or solely in private lives and practice.

These principles are particularly helpful for media to keep in mind. Stories about religion aren’t just stories about what a particular clergy member or community is doing. They’re about the ways that religion influences decisions in business and the arts, architecture and travel, food and education. Accurate representation of religion takes into account the changing nature of specific faiths, as well as the diversity of belief, practice, and identity that might exist within a religious group.

A more accurate representation of faith in media, journalism, and entertainment would not just appeal to members of religious groups, but also broaden cultural understanding of people of faith as well as the world we live in. This would in turn transform other areas of literacy, helping people detect when they’re encountering sincere religion or a charlatan in the public square. In a 2007 lecture, the American religion scholar Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t, argued that religious literacy is critical to understanding the current political climate:

Politicians are going to be invoking religious reasons for their public policy stances, and we, as citizens and as journalists and academics, should know something about religion so we can engage them, and … so we can flush out the demagogues who actually don’t have a religious argument but have a kind of religious invocation where they’re sort of invoking God or invoking religion without actually having a religious argument underneath that invocation.34

Faith in News Media: A Call for Increased Accuracy and Representation

The new data study by HarrisX and Faith and Media Initiative demonstrates the need for and importance of covering faith accurately in news media.35 In the global survey, 63 percent of respondents say there is a need for high-quality news content on faith and religion, with around one-third saying that they actively follow media sources focused on faith-based news. FAMI seeks to leverage this information to improve how people of faith and their contributions to their societies are perceived and shared in the news. Sharing stories of faith normalizes faith in the public square and strengthens pluralism. A society where all are free to discuss openly what they believe is one where division is harder to sow.

The FAMI study highlights negative stereotypes around religion, including when faith is positioned as a conservative or extreme force. This framing drives the tendency for media outlets to platform outspoken dogmatic spokespeople over more moderate religious observers with more mainstream views. It’s also better for gaining more eyeballs. 

Journalists shared their perspectives on why reports exclude meaningful faith coverage. One journalist from the UK shared that “religion is just peripheral to be honest. My perception is that it kind of crops up in these rather slightly kind of marginal corners of journalism.” Another reflected, “Religiosity rarely makes it through any parts of coverage except where the correspondent has a religious background and is able to pick up some of the nuance.” 

The FAMI study also found that journalists agree that change can start from media institutions: “Journalists feel that coverage of faith & religion is poor, inconsistent, and becoming more marginalized. They express fear around ’getting right’ religious coverage, particularly in largely secular newsrooms.” The efforts of journalists must be aided by support from editors. As Josh Good, director of the Faith Angle Forum, explains:

The real work of repairing this consequential breach requires constructive, iterative work from multiple actors—including executives, not just journalists. That’s because it’s media executives who sign off on hires and structure and oversee department leads. It’s executives who work closely with advertisers and investors to make the economics of journalism possible. Readers can voice criticism, offer their preferences, or express appreciation for factual reporting or columns, but it’s executives and managers who make changes and set outlet policy.36

There is an appetite among both journalists and editors to increase religious literacy and drive meaningful social change building on media’s role as the custodian of the public square. Newsroom economics can drive readership and increase stories of faith.

In a 2016 interview with NPR, Dean Baquet, who was then the executive editor of the New York Times, emphasized this very point.

I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based and Washington-based media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. I mean, we have a fabulous religion writer—but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better. I think there are things we can be more creative about, to understand the country.37

The Opportunity Ahead

Religion makes enormous contributions to civil society – revenue, moral philosophy, social services. Additional research is needed to fully quantify the full influence that religion has in the public square.

The cost of misrepresentation can fluctuate between general political apathy to more extreme and horrific cases where hate speech leads to genocide, as illustrated in the Rohingya Muslim example. Social measures must be taken to immunize against these threats, including a combination of education and discernment to maintain basic levels of religious literacy as outlined by Moore. Additionally, journalists, social media organizations, and other media outlets have the opportunity to demonstrate more ethical responsibility by consulting directly with the faith communities that their stories claim to represent.

For a study of religion in recent media coverage, as well as practical steps for journalists, please see A Snapshot of Religion Coverage.

* Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the specific authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any religious institution or organization, including FAMI. The purpose of the content is to provide personal insights, reflections, and perspectives on matters related to faith and spirituality and media. Readers are encouraged to exercise their own discernment and judgment in evaluating the content presented herein. Additionally, the information presented in these articles is not intended to substitute professional advice, and readers should consult with appropriate legal, medical, or religious authorities or seek guidance from qualified individuals for specific concerns. The author and the publisher disclaim any liability or responsibility for any loss or damage incurred by readers as a result of the use of the information presented in this article.


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