Religious Communities' Role in Countering Epidemics

Religious Communities' Role in Countering Epidemics

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Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, discusses religious communities’ role in countering epidemics, specifically the COVID-19 crisis. 

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


Katherine Marshall

Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; Professor of the Practice of Development, Conflict, and Religion, School of Foreign Service,Georgetown University


Irina A. Faskianos

Director for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for being with us.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Katherine Marshall with us today. Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the center’s work on religion and global development. She is also professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Both of these are housed at Georgetown University. Dr. Marshall helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faith Development Dialogue. She worked at the World Bank and has nearly five decades of experience on a wide range of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She has also led the World Bank’s Faith and Ethics Initiative from 2000 to 2006.

Katherine, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought we could just begin, to give people a little bit of context of what epidemics have to do with religion, and what you think the effect will be of the current crisis we’re in, the COVID-19 pandemic.

MARSHALL: I’m delighted to be here.

And epidemics have shaped history over the centuries. And it’s also very clear that the COIVD-19 epidemic that we’re now living will also shape history and bring very large upheavals that are very difficult to predict now. Throughout history religious institutions and beliefs have played significant roles, partly in efforts to demystify the mysteries of disease, partly in caring for those who suffer and partly, sad to say, in fanning flames of prejudice and conflict.

I’m going to focus today on the COVID-19 pandemic rather than on the fascinating history of epidemics in history. And I’ll reflect both lessons that I and colleagues have drawn from recent experience with various pandemics—Ebola, HIV and AIDS, and Zika—and also from our ongoing efforts to track the religious responses to tis pandemic across the world, with a particular focus on poorer countries. There’s a lot to learn from both the similarities and from differences.

And as a start, there are three topics that stand out. First, this is an all-hands job, with all sectors, professions, places involved. And religious actors are large players. Obviously they should not be left to decide. Partnership is a theme, for example, in the SDGs, but it takes on whole new dimensions with this crisis. Second, trust. Religious actors can play major roles in building trust. And where public health especially is concerned, trust—or, in contrast, suspicion—plays major roles in bringing an epidemic under control. And then the third general point is speed. This epidemic presents special challenges because knowledge and patterns change virtually by the hour. In what is both a sprint and a marathon the capacity of all, including religious actors, to act and to adapt is severely challenged.

So I want to focus on eight points that we’re seeing as we’re tracking what’s happening. So the first is that the pandemic’s many imperatives differ by timeframe. And there are different roles, but they all blend into each other. So you have the very immediate public health challenge, which is to halt the spread of the disease. And then we have to cope with its huge economic and social impact. But the long-term also can’t be neglected, and religious communities need to be involved in all three. So for example, as we look ahead optimistically, they should be involved in vaccination campaigns, in dealing with the inequalities that the disease is bringing out so starkly, and in the SDG resuming a focus on the global goal for development.

Second, religious responses involve vast and vastly complex communities and institutions. So we need to ask who’s involved. And in this effort, understanding networks or even networks of networks is absolutely vital. But it’s also important to keep in mind those who are more at the fringes of traditional networks. So understanding the landscape of this very complex religious world is very important, and we don’t have much time to do it.

A third issue that’s very much on people’s minds is public health messages. And in public health messages, what we call the KISS principle is often critical. KISS is “keep it simple, stupid.” So stay home. Physical distancing. Wear a mask, et cetera. These are sort of very simple ones. But they have a couple of major problems, which is that for religious leaders and actors they really need to be framed in theological terms, with stories, with examples. So adapting the public health messages is important, and the fact that they keep changing doesn’t make it any easier. But the second is that we’re hearing now from Africa and from other parts of the world that this idea of stay home is a nonsense for people who don’t have homes, or who have to go out in order to eat. So adapting these messages to local circumstances is critical.

So the issue of messages is a central act and concern that many people, including myself, are very much involved in. We also need to deal with false information. A wonderful book about the history of epidemics talks about fatal fictions and timely truths. But truth, of course, is not quite as simple as it seems. And finding ways to encourage and to support religious actors who are in the midst, in the thick of the crisis, to bring the voices that are going in opposite directions within their communities into line is critically important.

A fourth point, and one that, again, is very much an immediate concern, is the handling of gatherings where people come together. This is so important for religious communities as for so many others. And the sort of abrupt shift online is a real challenge. We’re coming up to Easter, Passover, Ramadan, which are major times when people come together as families, but also as communities. And with the shift online, the critical pastoral role of caring for people, visiting, is made so much more difficult. So finding ways to deal with this—people talk now about physical distancing and social connection, which is a much more apt term than social distancing. And it’s particularly apt in the religious world.

My fifth point is that there are some groups that are particular vulnerable. Refugees come immediately to mind. But there also are already very disturbing cases of stigma and discrimination that is affecting particular groups. We’re very concerned about children, who are particularly vulnerable, women in many situations. And there are very alarming reports already in increases in domestic abuses in a number of very different situations. In pandemics, there has always been a tendency to look for who to blame. And often that falls on particular communities. And religious actors, frankly, can be instrumental fanning these kinds of flames, but they also have an enormous role given the trust in them in trying to name them and to bring to an end these signs.

Sixth, many health systems and hospitals and clinics, and community care are managed directly by religious communities. So it’s vitally important that the kinds of supplies that are essential reach them, even if they’re not necessarily a formal part of the national public health system.

My seventh concern that we have relates to ongoing conflicts and specific areas of tension, some of which have specific religious dimensions. So there are religious minorities meeting today about prejudice and increases in incidents affecting Muslims in India, in Sri Lanka similarly. So there a real risk that both the pandemic and the fear that surrounds it, but also the suffering and hunger that comes with the economic collapse can aggravate and attend conflicts, but also even spark new ones. And we’re only beginning to have an appreciation of what the impact is on extremist groups, including some, obviously, that has some roots and ties to religious communities.

Finally, I think we need to be thinking about how religious actors and communities will be part of the longer-term discussions. How can they be at the table, for example, for the United Nations, the G-20, the G-7, and at a country level where so much is happening? I’m very struck by hearing two alternative narratives. One is that humanity will come together. We’ll appreciate that we’re all equal in a very fundamental way, that the divisions, the partisanship that’s divided us is a danger, that we need to move beyond it as a human family. So that’s the positive narrative. But there is another narrative which, sadly, history tells us we need to take into account, which is that this kind of crisis, even if it leads to warm reactions and positive support in the early days, can in fact cause social cohesion to erode.

And so both in thinking about the post-COVID world, it’s important to have the wise voices of our leading religious actors, but also the engagement of religious communities, very much part of what we can hope will be a very creative, forward-looking approach to the future of the world. So let me stop there. And I look forward very much to your comments and questions.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Katherine. Let’s open it up to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

We’ll take our first question from Piyush Agrawal with Global Organization for People of Indian Origin.

AGRAWAL: Greetings to everybody. Thanks for a very learned expression. There was a mention about minorities in India, which I think is very ill-founded. I don’t know whether the author knows what happened a few years ago when a Muslim organized a demand in New Delhi, and invited more than three thousand people, and damaged a whole program to hundreds of people. So it worked against the population, and the damaged the whole thing. I don’t know how you can say that there’s a problem with Muslims in India. Any response?

MARSHALL: I’m sorry, I don’t completely understand the gist of your question, but first of all clearly there have been a number of incidents in the world where religious gatherings have specifically led to the spread of this disease, COVID. And this is true across a number of religious traditions, including a number of Muslim gatherings. And there is one very specific case that we’re hearing about in India. The comment that I was making is that both the reality but even more the perception that particular groups are associated with the spread of disease translates into discrimination and prejudice against those groups.

We’re hearing obviously that from Asian Americans in the United States, where the disease is associated with China. And those people obviously have nothing to do with it. So what we’re hoping for is that religious leaders and communities will take a stand, and will ensure that people are not discriminated against because of their beliefs, because they belong to a specific group, but also that the existing tensions, which we know very well exist in all too many parts of the world, that they are not aggravated by this—by this disease.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Azza Karam with Religions for Peace.

KARAM: Hello. I hope you can all hear me. And sincere thanks, as always, to Katherine for her leadership and guidance to all of us in this space. And thank you, Irina, for organizing this very important outreach.

I just wanted to say a couple of observations to complement what Katherine said based on the actual work with faith communities on the ground that Religions for Peace is having to mostly support, but sometimes also we’re lucky enough to try to steward, in answer to some of the asks we are receiving from our interreligious councils currently in ninety countries. A couple of points to share, that first of all the point about understanding the network and understanding the religious networks, how they’re structured, what’s happening on the ground, who’s who, that this is something that often also gets used as an excuse by some of the multilaterals, and some of the donor governments as well. We need to understand how this is working, and we can’t figure this out.

Now, the truth is that that’s actually a bit of an excuse, because in fact the interreligious councils in different countries do have access to the health services, the educational services, and therefore are quite cognizant in many cases of how the religious landscape looks like. And I think what often gets done is that we overlook some of those interreligious platform presence. And that’s a bit silly. That we need in terms of just direct guidance to policymakers to say: You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to go study religions one-on-one. You actually do need to identify those existing interreligious structures who being together and culminate at a minimum the knowledge about what those networks of religion look like. So the value of what’s already there, I think, needs to be stressed and emphasized.

Very quickly, we’re seeing the normalization of two things here that’s happening with this process. We’re seeing the normalization of the word “prayer” and everybody is speaking about prayers. It’s absolutely correct that we are still facing a massive wave of religious—certain religious actors or certain religious institutions who persist in arguing that they must have their communal prayers, and that’s causing tremendous harm. But we’re also seeing, on the positive side, a greater acceptance of the role and the value of prayer, per se, which I have not noticed happen in the past. And perhaps this is something relevant to the fact that this is a catastrophe impacting on everybody at the same time, as Katherine highlighted very clearly. So prayers, which used to be something esoteric in public discourse before it appears to be more of a normalized—or understanding of value thereof now.

The other thing we’re seeing, which directly relates to the point about U.N. engagement, we’re effectively seeing that the continued breakup of multilateral power in this space. Meaning, what? Meaning that rather than the U.N. system actors themselves being much more proactive in reaching out to the faith community, individual governments are reaching out to faith communities on their own. So they’re not waiting for the U.N. to give guidance, give a list of faith actors, or anything like that. Now there is direct outreach from a number of governments, particularly western-based governments, straight to these different faith actors. Which, by the way, then also begs the question of having to identify the networks. Clearly, some networks are already identified and are being reached out to directly by especially Western donor governments for more information and access into communities. But also, how can we help you more in the work that you are doing. So that direct accessibility in a way is very healthy, but it’s also making the role of the U.N. in convening the different civic actors weaker, because then it’s not through the U.N.

A third positive that is actually taking place is that the World Health Organization, after years of actually not being in this interreligious engagement space, has now entered it much more deliberately, at a minimum to try to know, to provide guidance that is done in tandem with faith organizations. This is a good thing. The weakness of it is that it’s a guidance note developed that then the input has to come to the faith communities, as opposed to collating the multiple guidances that are already developed by faith communities in this space.

But it’s a good thing because we need to have an organization like the World Health Organization very cognizant and proactive in the outreach to the faith actors and communities. Another slight drawback, of course, is that this awareness that it’s important to reach out to the faith communities comes at a tertiary importance. Importance, number one, for the world health organization as a multilateral entity with the government, which is perfectly sensible. Importantly number two action, interestingly enough, was the private sector. So they went straight to the private sector to get them also to be mobilized for support and so on. And much later they’re coming to the faith-based organizations.

The good news is they’re coming towards the faith-based organizations and working with them. The not-so-good news is the faith-based organizations are not seen as what they are, which is a frontline of the service to much of this work. That’s all for now. Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Azza. Katherine, any response and then we’ll go to the next question?

MARSHALL: Well, let me briefly comment. As always, Azza has great wisdom and experience to offer. I think a couple of points are worth emphasizing. The first is that the interreligious approaches and organizations, going all the way from the global level with, of course, Religions for Peace a prime actor in this, are critical for bringing together the very complex mosaic, the very complex religious communities and entities. Their strength varies from country to country, but also their relationships with government.

So they are part of the answer, I think, but there are many other networks. And perhaps most important, there are in many cases communities, religious organizations that by choice or by chance fall outside of the formal networks. And one of the issues that has always been important—and Azza, of course, has been a leader on this, is that many traditional interreligious networks tend to be pretty much male, and pretty much older. So bringing the voices of women and of some minorities much more into the discussion is a really critical point.

The second, that has been a longstanding debate among those of us who are trying to build bridges between religious and nonreligious institutions—for me, particularly around development and humanitarian aid—is a word that people use, instrumentalization. And it is the temptation to use the religious leaders to tell people to wash their hands, or to offer to write their sermons for them. What’s critically important here is to have a place at the table, to be respected, to be understood. And the words about religious literacy, we know very well that many institutions, and many governments, and many local governments are either hostile to or simply ignorant of the religious world, so that it’s very difficult for them to be wise and practical in their engagement. There are different languages involved in many cases.

So in this crisis, it really is critical to avoid those traps, to make sure that there is—by WHO, by all the other organizations—a willingness to listen to the concerns, to get information from religious organizations, as well as simply to follow the KISS principle and to focus—as is essential in public health—on very simple and understandable messages, but that sometimes they can be misheard and sometimes they need to change given the circumstances.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Farah Pandith with CFR.

PANDITH: Good afternoon. Thank you so much for that really excellent overview. I really appreciated it. And I was wondering if you could just tell me from your perspective two very specific things. One is, I was intrigued by your comment on the G-7 and G-20. And I’m interested how you would see faith communities playing a greater role there. And my second component is you ended your comments by talking about the two narratives that you see happening. And I’d love to know which bucket are you in particularly. What do you think is going to happen? Thanks so much.

MARSHALL: (Laughs.) Those are excellent questions, as all these are. I’m most involved and most informed about the G-20, where since 2014 there has been a G-20 interfaith forum, which is grappling with the issue of bringing religious voices into the quite complex G-20 agenda. In this case, it’s clear that the G-20 has already mobilized to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. And the question then is whether and how the religious networks of networks, which is what the G-20 interfaith forum involved, what they should focus on and how they can contribute to the deliberations of the G-20. And that clearly falls into my sort of three buckets. The first, obviously, is the immediate public health crisis, which is much more WHO. I don’t think the G-20 or the G-7 will be very much directly involved in that, except, for, say, example, on border issues.

The second is one where I think we do need to look to the G-20, as well as to the multilateral institutions. And I would focus on the immediate response that has come from the World Bank and I think from other multilateral development agencies to mobilize finance. And again, the question is: How can one be sure that the wisdom and the knowledge that is in so many religious communities and religious institutions, whether they are the sort of big NGO-type organizations—Caritas, World Vision, Islamic Relief, Tzu Chi, but also the Vatican, the Buddhist networks, et cetera—is to bring that wisdom into the immediate: How do you stop people dying of hunger and how do you deal with some of the issues of changes in jobs and so forth?

And the in the longer term, which one hopes the G-20 will be focusing on, we hope very much that they will look to the religious communities in looking at these massive recovery passages, which are an early stage of discussion. So I think it’s going to be a complex and messy process because everything’s happening at the same time, everywhere. Global, regional, national, and each family. But in too many crises in the past the religious wisdom has not been taken into account. And I think that would be a grave error in this case.

As far as the narrative, I tend to be a chronic optimist. And I’m very hopeful that there will be some wisdom coming from the suffering that so many people are experiencing now and will experience in the coming months. I think the example of history, the lessons of history, are not terribly encouraging, because the—and even stories—I was reading some stories coming from Italy that the singing from the balconies is not happening as much. People are talking more about crime, about domestic violence, about the resurgence of the mafia. I hope that’s an exaggeration, but I think that all of us—including the religious but also the global and national institutions—need to do everything in our power to keep an eye on the negative trends and to try to turn them in a more positive direction.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Steve Gutow with NYU.

GUTOW: First of all, thank you, Katherine, very much for that really articulate and excellent presentation done quite quickly.

I have two questions. One’s a question based on your last answer. And that is, looking at the history of these pandemics—and I know you have, and I know probably has much more looking at it than you do—what are the things we could do now, the stances we can take, the PR we can do, the engagements we should make that will actually enhance the likelihood in a specific way for the first—for your first hope to happen, for the idea that we will get closer together and make it such, because if we start thinking about it now I think we’ll be much better at it than if we  just look at it all come across and the mafia takes the place of the singing. So that was question one.

And then question two is, in this particular pandemic—and you’re looking at it right in the face—what are the things that we should be proposing that have never been done before? I mean, to work together? Like, how should we try to bring together—it can’t only be the organizations—the interfaith or multifaith organizations that already exist. Are there new ones? Are there new things we should be doing country-by-country and county-by-county and, you know, throughout the world, to do something to make sure that we actually get a good stance on this, get started in the right way? So it’s a question to an artist. But give us your response, if you could.

MARSHALL: (Laughs.) Yes. I’m trying to—let me start with the second one, the second very large question. I think that one of the things that’s being brought out so clearly in this crisis is that everyone is involved, and everyone is thinking. And we do have the danger of the phenomenon that everything has been said, but not everyone has said it. That there’s so much writing, so much reporting, so many stories so many different perspectives, so much creativity that it’s very hard to handle. But we also have tools that we’ve never had before to capture some of the creativity and the things that are happening in different corners of the world.

As always, there are going to be some ideas that work, some ideas that really do grow into phenomenal new things, but also there’ll be some ideas that’ll fall by the wayside. What’s been interesting to me is seeing the discussions around these public health messages, and the need—first of all, there is, of course, a whole sort of tension around science versus faith and science versus other ways of looking at things, and the differences in language. How can a religious leader interpret some of the explanations of where the disease comes from? That requires both a theological knowledge but also compassion and creativity, but also the tempo is different. That things move so fast. I was on one call this morning where the basic mission’s message was speed that we can’t delay, we can’t wait because every minute translates into people dying.

So what you need—and Azza was talking about adopting, and both of us have been involved in—which is the World Health Organization’s guidelines or guidance to religious communities. And in some sense, everybody who looks at the document in the Google Doc makes different changes. At some point, somebody just needs to bring that to a halt and come up with something that really is definite, is the best advice we can possibly do at this moment. So I think we’re facing that. But then when we look at these long-term questions of how do we deal better with inequality, which the crisis reveals so starkly the privileges of some versus the pain and lack of options of others, we’re going to need all the creativity that we can muster as a community at every different level.

As far as sort of what are we learning, I think that there’s a great deal that we can learn already about being prepared, and about being ready to respond. I think that these issues of trust come up again and again of, you know, trust in science, trust in public officials, trust in leaders. We do know from so many surveys that when you do a survey and ask who you trust most, religious leaders tend to rank pretty high, if not the highest. So what that suggests is that they can play particularly important roles in helping to frame and pass the kinds of messages that we need. But I think we also need to go beyond the sort of immediate into bringing them much more into the discussion about the lessons and about where we go.

And clearly, a lot of this happens at the very, very local level. We all know that top down had so many different flaws. But how do you make this link between the very broad global leadership and what’s happening at the community level, so that they move back and forth in constructive ways? So these are very large questions. I hope we’ll all think about them together. But that’s a sort of short—(laughs)—short response.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Tereska Lynam with Oxford University.

LYNAM: Fantastic. So thank you so much for a wonderfully global presentation. This one is going to be more narrowly focused on specifically the United States, which has been one of the slowest countries to react to the pandemic in terms of lockdowns, and testing, et cetera. And I’m an economist first. And my economist friends are predicting a really bleak situation in about three weeks’ time. And I’m wondering how religious leaders, and the vast of religious leaders in the United States, what I’ve seen, have been very responsible and have been encouraging people to social distance, and are holding services online and support groups online.

But there are still a few groups that have refused to stop holding public gatherings, and otherwise are not observing social distancing. And they are being supported by their politicians in this. And already I’m seeing kind of the targeting you were talking about earlier of certain groups receiving the blame for it. And I’ve already seen memes on social media saying, you know, there’s no peeing section in the swimming pool, kind of to talk about how the fears about people who don’t socially distance. So I’m wondering if you have any advice for religious leaders about how to acknowledge, or dissuade, or discuss the fact that some religious groups are not practicing social distancing? Thank you so much.

MARSHALL: OK, thanks for, again, an excellent, tough question. First, I do want to emphasize one point that many of us are deeply concerned about, that, yes, the suffering in Europe and the United States is terrible. And there are all kinds of pressures and divisions that would not have been imaginable two to three weeks ago. But we need to keep equally concerned with what’s happening in the poorer countries in the world, which have so many fewer resources to respond. When people tell people in Kibera community in Nairobi to social distance or to wash their hands they say, you know, we are crammed into a hut and we have no water. So if we forget refugees, if we forget the children in orphanages in Sri Lanka whose food supply is cut off, if we forget the people in the vast, crowded cities in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world, I think or humanity is seriously in question. And that’s not in any way to detract from the pain of so many people, virtually everyone in the United States. But we need to keep the difference in mind.

As far as the voices who have called, I think, the fatal fictions, timely truths, the fringes, the groups who are not responsive to what are pretty clearly articulated and now experienced risks. It’s a real issue. One hopes that more evidence will help them. But I think the main sense I have is that within their own communities—in other words, religious communities themselves—have more capacity to persuade, convince, or to minimize the damage of the—of the individuals in communities that are resisting basically the public health council and the wisdom. Clearly there are some parts of the world now where people are being arrested, including there are cases in the United States. And that raises another danger, which is the concern about the abuse of human rights that can come in a public health emergency as people crackdown. So I think we need to beware of that, and to be very sensitive to the kinds of things that we’re hearing that suggest tensions linked to crackdowns. But that is in many ways in the nature of the crisis that we’re now facing.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Paul de Vries with New York Divinity School.

DE VRIES: Thank you so much, Dr. Marshall. Thank you Council on Foreign Relations.

I have a little bit different kind of question that’s not precisely in Dr. Marshall’s framework of expertise. But as an observing and wise fellow human being, here’s the question: I think it’s a huge challenges for churches and other religious institutions to switch to primarily online contact, or group meetings, or discussions, or studies, or religious services. And it’s hard to sustain people’s interest. On the other hand, I think we’re going to need to do this sort of thing a lot more in the future. I don’t think this is trying to be a very brief moment of coping through mainly online contact. So do you have any advice? Can you suggest some sources for advice to really sustain or even grow people’s interest, loyalty, commitment, and comfort with this new way of communicating in a community that really wants to be together?

MARSHALL: Well, you’re absolutely right. It’s a very difficult and very abrupt shift. And of course, it’s happening in education institutions and for children, where I’m teaching online in ways that I never have before. (Laughs.) And there are many disadvantages to it. There are benefits that we can now have the technology that you can see people’s faces and you can communicate in different ways, but it’s simply not the same thing as being able to see people face to face, to be together, to touch people, to have the direct human contact. And I certainly devoutly hope that those times will return sooner rather than later, where we’re able to be back to what is frankly what I would consider normal interactions.

But—(off mic)—are doing a lot better than they thought they would. There are students who are learning. There are online church services, mosque, Islamic, rituals, all kinds of creative things are happening. So I guess one possible answer to your question is to find ways to learn from that, to gain the best—we don’t like talking now about best practice—but interesting practice. We can find ways to share what we’re, all of us, learning as we are moving much more to online and to the screen. So I think you’re probably right that the changes that have happened will not simply disappear and evaporate, that some of the changes will involve a realization that there are meetings you can hold online that maybe you don’t need to take all the airplane trips that you thought you needed to take. But I do hope that we don’t have any delusion that this is going to move human interaction onto the computer and away from face-to-face.

FASKIANOS: I really hope not. (Laughter.) Next question. We have about fifteen in queue. So we have less than fifteen minutes left. So we’ll try to get to as many of you as we can. Thank you for your forbearance.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Elaine Howard Ecklund with Rice University.

HOWARD ECKLUND: Hello. Thank you so much for this fantastic discussion.

Actually, my question very nicely dovetails with the last speaker’s question. At Rice University we run a program on religion and public life, and we’ve been trying to start some studies in Houston, Texas, where Rice University is located, looking at how online interaction is being used in religious communities. And I wonder if Dr. Marshall might speak a bit to inequality in online usage. So we’re finding that some of our congregations that we’re beginning to study don’t have access to tech resources they might need. And of course, when we look at global inequalities, these differences will become even more stark.

MARSHALL: I didn’t hear the last bit.

FASKIANOS: I think it was basically just how do you deal with communities that don’t have access to  internet to facilitate the online—and I think we’re seeing that even in terms of educating kids, and students, and we really see that between the coasts, right?

MARSHALL: It’s obviously a very serious problem. And it’s interesting to witness the number of grandparents who are suddenly learning how to use different computer packages. So I think the digital divide might apply also to the elderly, who seem to be also one of the groups that’s most deeply affected. So, yes, it’s something very much to keep an eye on and to be concerned about.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Robin Mohr with Friends World Committee for Consultation.

MOHR: Good afternoon and thank you very much for the presentation.

In my work, I am really concerned, actually about how this pandemic is exacerbating the decline of small churches, primarily in the U.S. but in other places as well. And I’m really wondering about the impact of the pandemic on an elderly cohort of leadership, and perhaps a male cohort of leadership. But I am seeing, in conjunction with the rise of online opportunities for worship, a younger generation of religious voices, in my case particularly Latin American Evangelical Christian religious voices. And I’m wondering, how do you see this change—well, first I should ask whether you think that is more widespread across faith traditions and across geographic regions, rather than my focus on the Americas? And I’m wondering how you’ve seen that affecting religious efforts towards epidemics and other natural disasters or global disasters in the future?

MARSHALL: Well, it’s an interesting and complex question. I haven’t seen much data or what one might call hard information. But it certainly makes logical sense that small communities might have fewer resources to draw on. And one thing I didn’t mention but that’s clearly an issue is that going online has financial implications for lots of different communities. Looking at it more broadly, it’s clear that the things like earthquakes and hurricanes have been part of large shifts in the religious landscape in a number of different places. I’m thinking immediately of Central America, where that has been a major factor. And it does relate to something that I would like to emphasize, which is that many religious communities which have an ethos of service are responding to the crisis by mobilizing new and often very creative ways to help communities with whatever resources they have.

Someone that we emphasized the other day is really trying to do matchmaking within communities between resources and needs. Others in Muslim communities are using zakat and other charitable resources and mechanisms to start to respond to what are rapidly growing needs of communities. So I think that the ways in which religious communities respond and their ability to know where the pain is greatest, and to find ways to alleviate it, is likely to have an impact in how they’re seen, and how they grow, and how they recover in the longer term.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question come from Robert Franklin of Morehouse College.

FRANKLIN: Yes. Thank you. Appreciate your important observations, Dr. Marshall.

I would remind, as I have the privilege of serving as president of Morehouse College. And today is the fifty-second anniversary memorial of Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis, as you all recall. “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” And invite people to go back and look at that resource, as well as his final book, entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. What a compelling and timely question. Also published in 1968. And the last chapter of that book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community is titled, “The World House.” And King presents this wonderfully inspiring vision of religious pluralism, and cooperation, and the very things we’ve been talking about in this call. So just a reminder of those wonderful resources.

I love your point about the power of narrative. And other scholars are talking about the importance of winning and presenting stronger narratives. As I think about what I see on television each evening now, it’s a vision of judgement and God’s punishment and personal piety. And I harbor no animus toward Evangelist Franklin Graham, respected him for who and what he does, but there’s a lot that’s troubling there if that’s the resonance of religion in the public square.

So the question is, what about rituals of kind of public unity, respect, cooperation in this spirit of what Dr. King was leading us toward? And I’m sure there are terrific people in this loop who are thinking about this, but I would hope that some of the council—the interfaith councils and others—will help prepare us in the coming months for those public rituals. But maybe even some kind of seeding of a narrative now that reminds us of a profound interdependence. So the role of public ritual and of narrative, and again remembering Dr. King as a model. Thanks.

MARSHALL: Thanks. And thank you for those comments. And how we wish that Dr. King were with us at this time when we need voices like his, of passion and of wisdom. And I completely agree with you about the point on narrative. One of the dilemmas of these public health messages is the desire to have something that’s simple, stay at home, versus the complexity of the real issues that are involved and the difficult of translating something like that into a language that will be heard and felt by people. And that’s where, I think, stories, examples, come very much into account.

Azza referred to a remarkable event that was organized by Religions for Peace, the interreligious body, to bring religious leaders together with words of wisdom about the crisis. And there are many more. We’re hearing about many more, both very wise statements, the pope all the way down in a much more local sense to others. So I think that there is an enormous outpouring of wisdom and of rituals, relying on rituals, to give people comfort, but also, I think, bestir the better angels of our souls, as opposed to the worst ones.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Nancy Ammerman with Boston University.

AMMERMAN: Thank you. And thanks, again, Professor Marshall.

I was reminded of how much your work has helped us. I thought with some colleagues about religion and social progress with the International Panel on Social Progress. And what I want to just do very briefly is pick up on some of what we’ve been talking about more recently in the conversation. And that is the temptation in the public sphere, at least among most both professionals and commentators, to look at the bad actors, if you will, the people who aren’t cooperating, and say: See, we told you. Religion’s bad for people. We should just shun religion entirely, not have religion have a seat at the table.

And I think one of the most critical things that this conversation has brought home to me is the importance task a counternarrative that points out, in very clear, concrete ways, the importance of having religious partners at the table. So one of the things I’m hoping is that out of this conversation, both you, Professor Marshall and lots of other people, are going to be writing things that will be publicly accessible, that will tell the stories that illustrate the degree to which we need to have those partnerships, we need to have those religious messages that are adapting to this new reality. So thanks.

MARSHALL: (Laughs.) Yeah, I completely agree. The one qualification I would have is that honesty and truth are very important. And we need to acknowledge—we always do when we’re looking at the role of religion and trying to convince skeptics that there really is a need for a seat at the table—is that religion can be part of the problem, but it must also be part of the solution. That’s never been as obviously important, I think, as it is in this crisis. And yet, there are plenty of voices that are denigrating what religious actors are doing. But the remarkable efforts both to adapt and, even more, to respond, to act for the people who are vulnerable, and who are left behind, those are the end of the road, I think that’s the most critical role, as well as providing comfort and bringing people together.

FASKIANOS: And with that, I’m saddened to say that we need to bring this conversation to a close. We’ve reached the 3:00 hour. But, Katherine Marshall, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today, and the work that you’ve been doing at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, and to all of you for your questions. As you know, you can also follow Katherine Marshall on Twitter at @patlakath. So you should follow her there. Of course, go to the Berkley Center website. You can also follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion to get information on upcoming calls, as well as resources that we’re releasing. We also have a very robust section dedicated to COVID-19 resources there, a website that really delves into these issues, and of course content from Foreign Affairs, our magazine.

So thank you all, again, for participating in today’s call. We really appreciate your taking the time. We—I’m sorry we didn’t get to all of your questions. And we all need to do our part to social distance, but stay connected. And stay well, everybody.

MARSHALL: Thank you all so much.



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