Managing Fear through Faith
Advocates of responsible, farsighted foreign policy approaches face unique communications challenges in fearful times, when strong public emotions are vulnerable to being channeled in unproductive directions. U.S. in the World’s Managing the Fear Factor project is helping diverse opinion leaders understand and meet these challenges. Through this project, we’ve begun to reach out to faith leaders, whose role in managing fear is arguably more important than ever, given the likelihood that there will continue to be terrorist attacks and attempted attacks on the United States for which religious justification is claimed. What can religious leaders and communities do and say – starting now – to discourage scapegoating, counter the manipulation of fear, and prevent further unraveling of the social and political fabric of American life at moments of great national stress?
In late March, U.S. in the World took a step toward addressing this large question at a conference on Managing Fear Through Faith, co-hosted with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD. The conference brought together leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths to discuss the ways their respective religions and communities have responded to fear, both historically and recently. Highlights of the discussion were subsequently presented at a briefing for Connect US members in April (PowerPoint posted here).
Looking back on the conference, we want to share some reflections on potential opportunities and obstacles that we think merit further attention going forward – and on which we invite your comments. This first post focuses on an opportunity; in the next post, we’ll talk about some of the obstacles.
It’s easy to imagine faith leaders playing a critical role in calming individual fears and comforting the stricken after a major terrorist event. But research commissioned and reviewed by USITW suggests that moderating personal fears is not necessarily sufficient to promote a different kind of public thinking about how we, as a nation and as a society, should respond to the terrorism threat. Opinion leaders also need to encourage communal activities that address the real concerns people have while drawing them out of fear and into positive affiliation with others – including those who are different from themselves. Constructing opportunities for this kind of affiliative action may be one of the most important things leaders can do to reduce public fearfulness and, perhaps, to reduce the appeal of precipitous reactions that are based on fear.
Large public demonstrations of shared sorrow and sober determination after the event (as in Madrid, after the attacks of 3/11/04) are one form of affiliative, healing action. But opinion leaders should also be thinking about how to communicate in ways that encourage positive, affiliative action before a crisis. Is it possible to invite citizens to imagine how they would like their community, their institutions, and their leaders to react in future moments of great national stress? Are there ways of engaging Americans in laying the groundwork now for such a response?
While this kind of communication may not come naturally to policy experts and policy advocates, it would seem to be a very natural and appropriate way for people of faith to talk and think. As we learned from background papers prepared for the interfaith conference by three young religious scholars, all of the Abrahamic traditions seem to address the role of faith in transforming the energy of fear into a different kind of force – a force for humility, for service, for community, for the common good. By encouraging such a transformation through action and shared experience, faith leaders and communities could make an especially important contribution to shaping a more constructive public conversation about terrorism and security.