Hindu Nationalists rally in India. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

Hindu Nationalists rally in India. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

Religious organizations have a friend in the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment. Created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in Eli Lilly and Company, the funder’s religious grantmaking focuses on strengthening pastoral leadership, supporting religious institutions, and deepening Christian life. Not many foundations operate in this space and certainly none with the resources of Lilly—which reported around $15 billion in assets at the end of 2018.

The endowment’s religion-oriented grantmaking also extends to the media world, where it seeks to “foster public understanding about religion and lift up in fair and accurate ways the contributions that people of all faiths and diverse religious communities make to our greater civic well-being.” Examples here include providing financial assistance to enable journalists to enroll in religion courses and funding university efforts to expand religious reporting.

Recent news finds the endowment significantly expanding its efforts to strengthen the public understanding of religion in the journalism space. In what it called one of its “largest investments in religion journalism in decades,” the endowment announced an 18-month $4.9 million grant to the Religious News Foundation (RNF), earmarked to create a global religion journalism initiative.

The initiative includes the creation of a joint global religion news desk staffed by journalists from Religion News Service (RNS), the Associated Press (AP), and editors from The Conversation. The desk will produce multi-format religion journalism aimed at providing “balanced, nuanced coverage of major world religions, with an emphasis on explaining religious practices and principles behind current events and cultural movements.”

“This collaboration among RNF, the Associated Press and The Conversation is groundbreaking and holds significant promise to increase both the volume and quality of religion news reporting,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “We believe the initiative will help ensure that fair and accurate news coverage about religion reaches broad audiences and improves understanding about how religion shapes national and international events.”

“We Don’t Get Religion”

To get a better idea as to how the Lilly Endowment seeks to improve the global public’s understanding of religion, let’s step back and analyze its work on the domestic front. Back in 2015, the endowment partnered with the Henry Luce Foundation to expand online religion coverage at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. At the time, I called attention to some of the factors that fueled Lilly’s grantmaking in this space:

Most journalists aren’t entirely religious and they may view “red state” religion or any kind of fervent religious devotion with a kind of perplexed anthropological inquisitiveness that religious people find patronizing. (It also makes for bad journalism).

Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC Annenberg concurred, arguing, “The next generation of reporters should understand the importance of religion in the daily lives of Americans and learn how ordinary people look for and find meaning, identity and purpose.”

A year later, Donald Trump won the presidency propelled, in part, by religious Americans who felt that the mainstream media viewed them with detached amusement, if not outright disdain. Coastal journalists and blue-state foundations were shocked. How could this happen? Reflecting on the election results in a chat with NPR’s Dave Davies, the New York Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet was blunt:

I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. 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. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.

Over two years after Baquet’s interview, the Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemmingway argued that outlets like Times still have a lot of work to do. The open question moving forward is if initiatives like the Lilly Endowment’s global religion journalism initiative can foster greater religious understanding domestically and abroad.

Some religious journalists are cautiously optimistic. After Lilly announced the initiative, Bobby Ross Jr. of the Christian Chronicle wrote, “Even though my bias would be toward devoting more of the grant money to actual reporters, I do see the benefit of having an expert in the newsroom help a major organization like AP make sure it’s covering religion accurately…Hopefully, AP’s coverage plans for religion will include someone to cover the nitty-gritty of actual religious groups and doctrines—along with the emphasis on important areas such as youth, politics and Islam.”

Amplifying Intolerance

Media powerhouses’ inability or unwillingness to “get religion” certainly isn’t relegated to office buildings in New York and Washington. Thanks to social media, this epidemic of ignorance—willfully or otherwise—has gone global, a development that serves as the unspoken backdrop behind the endowment’s announcement.

Social media has changed how people react with each other. It’s altered the fundamental fabric of human communication. It’s made us more jealous, depressed, and resistant to opposing opinions and viewpoints. Instead of bringing people together, social media and its algorithms are further dividing citizens by providing echo chambers that deliver personalized content, reinforce stereotypes, and block out opposing points of view. Preconceptions harden and empathy dissipates. Throw centuries of religious intolerance and grievance into this toxic mix, and it can become a matter of life and death.

And so, if we were to zoom out further, Lilly’s announcement finds the foundation joining a growing list of funders, particularly those operating in the media and journalism space, seeking to cultivate what it calls “greater civic well-being” in a world riven by fractious technology.

Craig Newmark, philanthropy’s biggest crusader against fake news, ponied up $20 million to launch The Markup with the goal of scrutinizing the technology industry and its effects on society at large. Donors like Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch have sought to reign in toxic civil discourse while Pierre Omidyar wants to close the “global trust deficit.” And in late July, the Knight Foundation announced a commitment of nearly $50 million in support of research aimed at better understanding how technology is transforming U.S. democracy.

Funders’ efforts transcend the journalism and media space as well. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation wants to know if the “arts experience” can foster empathy and compassion. Funders frequently cite the adverse effects of social media in their efforts to combat bullying.

In other words, funders are increasingly engaging in a battle for the public’s hearts, minds, and souls.

While the Lilly Endowment keeps a relatively low public profile, it’s now among the very biggest foundations in the U.S., due mostly to a 37 percent rise in the stock price of Eli Lilly and Co. in 2018. The jump prompted the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Lindsey Erdody to note that “the asset increase last year is enough to put the endowment ahead of other giant foundations in total assets, including the Ford Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.”

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