Religion is good for America, authors argue
December 17th, 2010
06:00 AM ET

Religion is good for America, authors argue

By Richard Greene and Eric Marrapodi, CNN

How can the United States be devout, diverse and tolerant?

David Campbell pondered this question at a lunchtime forum at the Pew Research Center on a blustery Thursday in Washington. How could a country that is more devout than Iran (at least in terms of worship service attendance) get along so well?

Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame, and Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard, sought to find the answers to those questions through an exhaustive examination for their recent book, "American Grace: How faith Divides and Unites Us."

The authors conducted the Faith Matters survey of 3,000 people in 2006 and then came back to many of them again in 2007 to see how things may have changed. They combined that with snapshots of a dozen distinctly different congregations spread out across the country and just about every recent survey done on religion in America to try to get the fullest picture possible of religion in America.

"The U.S. actually does present a very unusual environment for religion," Campbell said while manning the Power Point presentation solo (his co-author was stuck on a runway in New York).

The fact that America is devout and diverse might lead to the conclusion (that) as a country it would be less tolerant. But their research showed the opposite.

In their book, Putnam and Campbell aim to rise above the recent decades of mistrust and even hostility that have marked relations between religious and nonreligious Americans - and, not coincidentally, the country's political right and left.

Relax, they say. Religion is good for America, and mostly, things are working out fine.

They're not the first to argue that church/state separation combined with an entrepreneurial spirit has produced a decidedly tolerant religious culture in the United States. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist magazine advanced much the same thesis in "God is Back" last year, going so far as to argue that other countries should decouple religious and state institutions in order to get similar results.

But Putnam and Campbell drill much deeper into the data to demonstrate their case, cramming charts, graphs and tables into the massive tome.

Putnam and Campbell argue that several specific factors contribute to what, in the book's closing line, they grandly call "America's Grace."

Campbell said on Thursday it is surprising, but "Americans are quite accepting of people of other faiths, which is a remarkable thing given that so many Americans themselves are not only religious in a nominal sense, that they have a religious affiliation, but they're also quite serious about their religion."

First, as is well documented, the United States is filled with people professing deep religious faith. Even given the rapid recent rise in those who say they have no religion - what students of religion call the "nones" - Americans are far more religious than people in just about any other industrialized country.

And the "nones," Putnam and Campbell remind readers, are not necessarily atheists or agnostics. In fact, most say they are not, and even those who disavow any belief in God know much more about religion than their counterparts in Europe.

Secondly, because Americans change their religion with relative ease, they have friends and even family members of different faiths.

Not quite one in five Americans had converted to a different religion at the beginning of the 20th century, they say - but by the end of the century it was more than one in four.

Marrying people of another faith became so commonly accepted that Gallup stopped polling how people felt about intermarriage in 1982.

In fact, it's partly the willingness of Americans to change religions that led to the alignment between faith and politics that seems such an ironclad fact of American life now. Younger readers may be surprised to find that it's only about a generation old.

Putnam and Campbell found, to their surprise, that when an American's religion and politics don't "match" - an evangelical votes Democratic, or a Republican hails from a family with no religion, for example - they're more likely to change their religion than their politics.

The result of this mixing and mingling is that Americans tend to have pretty positive feelings about people of other religions, the authors argue.

Nearly half of all Americans, for example, report they have never in their lives heard someone make a negative comment about their religion.

Conversely, those religions Americans feel least positively towards - Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims - may suffer at least partly because their communities are relatively insular, with less intermarriage and interfaith friendship, the authors speculate.

The third and final piece of the puzzle is that, by and large, Americans don't think their friends and family are damned if they belong to other religions - or none.

Putnam and Campbell call this the "Aunt Susan principle." In a country with so much religious mixing within families, many Americans have a relative who they are sure is going to heaven, even though they're of a different religion.

"Aunt Susan is that relative we all have. She is the sweetest, kindest, nicest person you know. She's the one who brings the casseroles to people when they're sick. She's the one you call when you're in trouble," Campbell explained at the forum.

"But your Aunt Susan is of another religion, and your religion you know teaches you theologically she's not supposed to go to heaven. But you know if there's anyone who is destined for heaven, it's Aunt Susan," he said.

Even among evangelical Christians, more than half believe that a good person of another faith can go to heaven - although even the most liberal Christian denominations officially say otherwise.

Putnam and Campbell summarize their theory in a not terribly catchy formula: devotion plus diversity, minus damnation, equals comity.

They also argue that religion itself produces many practical benefits for American society.

Religious people are more likely than nonreligious people to do good deeds in 10 out of 15 categories they surveyed, such as donate blood, help someone find a job or allow a stranger to cut in front of them in line. And they're no less likely than nonreligious people to help out in the other five categories, like giving directions to a stranger.

They volunteer more time and donate more money than nonreligious people - both to religious and to secular organizations.

And it doesn't seem to matter what religion they practice, the authors find, or even what they believe.

They found no correlation between what they call "good neighborliness" and belief that the Bible is literally true, for example. What matters is actually going to church and having lots of friends there, they say, concluding that religious networks "supercharge" neighborliness.

Putnam and Campbell are not simply cheerleaders for religion, though.

They find that religious people are less supportive of civil liberties than their nonreligious counterparts.

And religious and nonreligious people do not have positive feelings about one another. Each group tends to see the other as intolerant and selfish, while viewing their own kind as tolerant and selfless.

But overall, Americans see religion as a good influence on national life - and despite the apparent ambivalence of their subtitle, "How Religion Divides and Unites Us" - Putnam and Campbell clearly do, too.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Church and state • Interfaith issues • United States

soundoff (535 Responses)
  1. Edgar

    "God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Evereything" by Christopher Hitchens is a brilliant analysis of how organized religions have abused their followers as well as their hated non-believers since man's earliest days. The reality of death has led Man to create God, and then to use this "God" to scare little children into thinking they are going to a place called "Hell" if they don't toe the line. We don't need any more Crusades or Inquisitions or religious purges or litmus tests and we sure as hell don't need to think that Israel needs to keep acquiring the Palestinians' territory to provide a bigger landing strip for Jesus when he decides to "come again." Hitchens is correct that, under any rational analysis, religion poisons everything.

    December 17, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  2. phoenix

    religion is the taskmasters telling you are going to hell thats for retards.spirituality is reading the bible and communicating to the most high God EL ELYON

    December 17, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  3. Jebus Christ

    Nope sorry, it was the Mormons who had it right all along. Consider yourself damned. Not even eating me can help you now. Mwa ha ha ha

    December 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  4. Adele

    There's an old saying... "statistics don't lie, but liars use statistics." I think that holds true for religion as well. It's all in who is using/wielding it and why.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie


      There are too many thoughts, too many reasons, and too many people to generalize. All things must be accepted for what they are proven to be, on a case-by-case basis. Until a person proves how nice or cruel they are, we must accept that we know very little about him/her, regardless of past experiences and what actions/words only suggest.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
    • Kelly Garrett

      Well, certain faiths have certain tenets. In christianity they accept a covenant based on the tenets in the christian bible. Those tenets cannot be changed. We can judge a person by the oaths they take. The oath the christians take includes their acceptance of only one true god, all others a false...that is the primary tenet...period. Another tenet of their oath is that they enter an elite fellowship, and are holy separate from the rest of godless mankind. They are morally and spritually superior to the rest of humanity, and are the messengers of the truth from the only and only true god, and by entering that fellowship they will be allowed what the rest of humanity does not have...the ability to experience "true love." The laws of the god are also accepted, and that includes that gays are to be put to death, where they will burn in unimaginable agony for all of eternity. They accept that their christ will return and slaughter every non-christian man, woman and child in existence, and they will also burn in unimaginable agony for all of eternity. This is just part of the tenets they accepted...if they were unacceptable then they would have passed on the offer of such a "love" as defined in that bible. However, they did accept those tenets, stood before their congregations and accepted the baptism and partook of the blood and flesh of the human sacrifice their god made for them and sealing their covenant. So, that is where they stand, if they stand by their oath to their god. All those that call themselves christians can be judged on the fact that they accepted those tenets.

      The only case-by-case analysis of an individual follower is whether they kept their oath, or if they "crossed their fingers" while taking it, and actually only accepted some of those tenets...basically lying to their god and fellow congregants. If they would lie to their god, what is the worth of their word to a lowly human? Chrisitanity is not defined by the lowly, flawed human followers...it is defined by the god through his bible. If they wanted only the "gospels" then they would have chosen to follow the Jewish Prophet Yeshua ben Yosef that is found in the Gospels According to Thomas...but,. he comes with no universal god, no covenant for all of mankind. He just comes with the message of Agape amongst the fellowship of man. He was henotheist, and each faith was just another path to the same destination. But, that is not who they chose.

      December 17, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  5. Marco

    Religion isn't "good" for anyone. Mind control isn't "good" for anyone. Ignoring hard, plain facts and evidence to support an idea of a giant imaginary friend in the sky that is really concerned with how dedicated his/her creations are about worshiping he/she....NOT GOOD.

    There is nothing good about a complete and total lack of reason in the face of hard scientific evidence. Christians, Jews, Muslims – makes no difference – it's still just a crutch for people who can't put their faith into the things that are around them every day, but instead would rather believe in the promise of "something better on the other side". How about we MAKE something better HERE and NOW?

    December 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  6. mac

    I would like to tell every single one of you out there! i consider all of you my brothers and sisters... and i love all of you and will pray for you no matter what belief...

    happy hollidays

    December 17, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
    • NL

      "no matter what belief..."
      So, do you respect what we each believe, or are you making a show of praying for God to spare us undue punishment for being wrong? Sorry, but I just can't bring myself to accept your prayers as an act of kindness when it is so clearly meant as a harsh judgment.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Kelly Garrett

      I don't doubt you "love" us, at least as you christians define love. You have the same love for those outside your exclusive fellowship as you have for Osama bin Laden. You cannot truly love someone you do not understand, and you faith will not allow you to understand us. All you are left with is that cheap, plastic "love" that you have to show because your bible tells you to do so. There is not much "love" in a love that is demanded, and totally one-sided.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
    • John

      I would prefer instead of praying for everyone, spend that time learning something that can be of value for yourself and your fellow beings or go out a perform a helpful act for some other being. Do something that is demonstrably helpful as prayer is not.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Those are very kind sentiments, mac. I appreciate your open-mindedness and acceptance of people you know nothing about.

      Happy Holidays to you. Be well.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
    • Howie

      @ GrammerGnatsie – "I'll pray for you no matter what you believe, and you can't stop me!" Is hardly an expression of love, understanding, or open mindedness. This is a form of violence, dressed up so the perpetrator can feel good about his or her purity. Don't you dare pray for me! To me, prayer is the moral equivalent of killing babies. You are committing an act of violence against reality, working feverishly to enslave the minds of generations of innocent people. Instead of praying for me, please spit on me, kick me, punch me in the face – that is how you really feel, and I value honesty above hypocrisy.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Don't do any ritual chanting of ignorant nonsense on my behalf thank you.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Jason

      lol, see the reception you get from atheists, mac? Doesn't matter if you're trying to spread love and cheer, they'll rip on you for having faith. Good old American tolerance.

      December 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie


      Calm down. I would recommend a chill pill, but I suspect the subject of medications excites your paranoia.

      I admit, he didn't specify whether he prayed for success or for harm, but he certainly didn't mention that there was nothing we could do about it. Obviously, praying for another is desiring something for them, so we literally can't stop him from having a desire, but that's not my point. You're trying to paint a swan like a skunk here. mac was simply expressing kindness and good will. I don't find it very reciprocative to imply he is insulting you and doing violence against you.

      Honestly, I can't fathom how "Happy holidays" is read as "I will do great harm to you". If you choose to take offense at such a benign comment, stop and consider who's worse off. mac knows he was trying to be kind, and you're fuming. I know my intent was to respectfully return his or her kindness, which I feel was satisfactorily expressed. Your spontaneous ire doesn't upset me in the least. You're the one with possible blood-pressure concerns.

      Peace and happiness be with you!

      December 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  7. davidp


    December 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  8. Unfrozen Caveman

    What this tells me is that the religious tolerance are lessons learned from society – secular values – and not dogmatic as most all codified religious scriptures teach the opposite. The infidels are to be crushed, subjugated or made to bow to the pope, caliph, bishop, rabbi, maybe even the wiccan goddess, etc.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  9. LeeCMH

    There's a headline right now on the main CNN page, "Man sees Jesus, Mary in candy."

    December 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Jim

    "If we evolved from monkeys, than why are there still monkeys?"
    Oh, jesus this is a stupid question. I can understand a high school student asking his biology teacher this but to put it up on a church billboard just shows how ignorant some people are to science and how it works. Asking this question on a billboard just shows that they don't even want to attempt to become educated in evolution and would rather just toss out the idea without even thinking critically at all. What would happen if a scientist went into that church and wanted to explain the answer to this question to the preacher, would he even listen?

    For those of you who don't understand evolution I'll try to answer that question with the basic knowledge I have from high school biology.
    1st: Evolution is a series of changes that lead one species to become another by ways of mutations, if the mutation benefits the species it will be passed on to future generations. It makes them more fit to survive, i.e. "survival of the fittest".
    2nd: Do monkeys and apes just live on one island or one part of the planet? No, they live all over, South America, Africa, India ect. Is there only one species of monkey and ape? No, hundreds different species. Can different species of monkeys mate with eachother? No. So, how can monkeys evolve into humans and there are still monkeys? If you can't answer that by now with this information you are hopeless. One species of monkey has a mutation that is beneficial, it can still mate with it's own species passing along that trait eventually it becomes a new species not capable of mating with anything other than it's new species. This new species has other beneficial mutations and the cycle continues, NOT EFFECTING ANY OF THE OTHER MONKEYS AND APES. Questions like these make anti-evolutionist look really really stupid to those that are educated and understand how biology works. You wouldn't want to look stupid would you?

    December 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Jim, you should keep it simple so your audience doesn't lose interest. Try this:

      "Firstly, man evolved from, and are, apes, not monkeys. Secondly, evolution is essentially long-term adaptation; short-term is building a house in a cold environment, long-term is the body growing more hair and retaining blubber. Thus, animals adapt based on their surroundings. Due to varying environments, there are varying species. This is why there are different types of cats, dogs, birds, snakes, et cetera. Without evolution, there would be one breed of every animal and all humans would be of the same ethnicity."

      Short, and regains attention lost at the science bits by returning to what's important to your audience: them. Note the last sentence refers to them with the words "all humans". Anyone spacing out thinks "that's me!" and listens to you saying something about them being all the same ethnicity.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  11. John

    What a crock! The author claims Americans are tolerant of other religions. Not true. Americans are tolerant of other DENOMINATIONS of one religion–Christianity–and are intolerant of religions that they consider non-Christian, including Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists. The failure to distinguish between a denomination and a religion leads to a completely false analysis. Americans are indeed much less tolerant than Europeans. And imagine Egypt–1/3 Christian, 2/3 Muslim–where people get along marvelously (I've been there!). Americans have no clue about tolerating non-Christians.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  12. scieng

    Religion is normally the explanation for why people and the world are the way they are. The Bible teaches what is sin and what is righteousness–and this is accepted by Christians and some other religions. The Bible teaches tolerance of people, but not sin. Americans generally practice this. It is the basis for our law and understanding of justice.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      I've always said "Hate the Christianity not the Christian."

      December 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • Bill

      "It is the basis for our law and understanding of justice."

      No it is not. Our laws and sense of justice are derived from British common law, which is based on greek secular philosophy. If our sense of law and justice are biblicly based, then why do we not follow biblical law?


      December 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • Unfrozen Caveman

      Really? It teaches tolerance? Which parts? Because I can find plenty of parts that teach war, genocide, etc. And no, Jesus didn't replaced the OT and Law... remember... not one iota, not one jot shall pass until all is fulfilled....

      December 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      LeeCMH – that's true for all religions. Hate the religion, not the religious people. But I don't actually hate religions either. All religions are just mythology, written by primitive cultures. Nothing more. I don't hate them, I just think they're stupid.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      Luis: I wish religions could be ignored. Unfortunately, so much violence in the world is predicated on religious values. Christians are trying to use the United States government to crush people they hate.

      December 20, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  13. concerned citizen

    Religion is the root of all evil.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
    • Bruce


      And the Bible says, "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil"

      December 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
    • scieng

      It is the basis for all law and justice. It is the basis for faith, hope, and love. It is the basis for joy and contentment, even when people are challenged with pain and death. It is the basis for sacrificing self interests for a "greater good". It is strange you call that evil.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      OMG are they going to start the Bible quotes? "In Jibberish 12:23 it says."

      December 17, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Bill

      "It is the basis for all law and justice."

      Law and Justice and democracy are more greek secular concepts than anything else.

      It is the basis for faith, hope, and love.

      "Then why do I have those things as an athiest?"

      "It is the basis for joy and contentment, even when people are challenged with pain and death."

      Then why am I a happy and contented athiest?

      "It is the basis for sacrificing self interests for a "greater good".

      I know more athiests who believe in that concept than Christians because most of athiest friends are humanists. religious people are not concerned with the greater good, they are concerned with personal salvation.

      It is strange you call that evil."

      No we consider using imaginary man made stories to justifying overt descrimination, abuse of women and children and flat out murder to be evil. That's what religion brings to the table that intelligent logical thinkers do not already have.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  14. kds562

    If your compassionate, love ALL living things, empathetic, help the less fortunate and respectful to everyone, it doesn't matter if your religious or an atheist, purple, green, white, brown, black or pink

    December 17, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
    • John

      You are wrong. The truth does matter. A religious person can be all the things you say and if their religion tells them that it is kinder to kill a person than to allow them to continue living in the tortured life of seperation from god, then for that person, it would be completely consistent with kindness to go on a murderous killing spree. Religion is a lie and has been used by the capricious and megalomaniacal to inspire acts of horrible immorality.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • Jason

      John, shouldn't you be ranting from a box on a street corner somewhere?

      December 17, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  15. Bryan

    Funny how a study that aimed to find the good and bad about religion found out good and bad stuff about religion. This is JUNK SCIENCE and should be consumed as such. It seems that this study was done with such a ridiculous Christian slant that none of it can be taken seriously. Seems like Religion is doing great in the Middle East, huh? Oh yeah and those people who flew planes into buildings....think that would've happened without religion?

    How about considering ALL THE FACTS, historical and modern, about how religion is really effecting our country AND the rest of the world. It's not all this holding hands, doing good deeds religious I've ever known. Charity given by churches is always done with an expectation of prayer and conversion. The Catholics have been doing this for 100s of years now, seeking out the poor, uneducated masses and brain-washing them by becoming their lifeline.

    Atheists would NEVER do anything that self-serving, at least the ones I know.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  16. LeeCMH

    Take a look at Mr. Campbell's works over the last decade. A books that denies George Bush used religionist hate against gays in the 2004 election. Other works that attempt to gloss over the role of religious hate in American politics. Note he is a professor in the Political Science department at Notre Dame.

    Surely this knowledge would cause one to at least doubt any neutrality in what is presented as a scientific investigation.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • Toph

      Theists use their religion to justify their prejudice and bigotry.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  17. Toph

    Religion is not good for America. Of course the theists see it this way. But reallyReligion is a poision.Religion makes people strap on bombs and kill innocent people. Religion breeds people like Hitler. Religion makes people likk other innocent people all in the mane of some god. Religion breeds intolerance, racism and hatred towards anyone that is different. Religion breeds pedophile preists. Now tell me how is any of this good, not only for America, but for the World? I see very little good coming from teh church, at all.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  18. Mark

    I hope I'm near atheists on judgment day. The look on their faces will be priceless.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • vel

      What a typical Christian thing to say. How "nice". I do wonder what Christians will do when they are on their death beds and realize that there is no end times, no Jesus returning. What does it feel like when you were sure God would come back to make sure that *you* wouldn't have to die and then he didn't? Why has the prediction of the return of Jesus failed for the last 2000+ years and each generation is sure that they just had to be the ones who were the special group that would get to go to heaven without death?

      December 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      As you teeter your head in self-righteous indignation.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
    • John

      Do you also hope you're near Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Sikhs, Hindus, and Shintos? Examine the motives behind your comment, why do you wish to see someone who doesn't believe as you do suffer? I think its likely to exact retribution for the uncomfortable feeling you get when you are forced to know that others question the belief in a god. Why do you have that feeling? I think its because deep down somewhere you don't want to look, you know religion and god are all BS.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
    • Toph

      Okay, we'll assume there may be some imaginary friend for adults in the sky. If there is I would demand to know why they did not stop the crusades, nor the inquisition, nor the holocaust. Something that is Divine would have the ability to stop such an atrocity, especially when the atrocitiy was comitted in their name. In fact, if there was a god, they would be required to act.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • John

      Mark, you just judged yourself. Your Email shows your judgmental character, and it's not of the "love" that people of your religion profess but seldomly practice.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • Terre

      Judgment day?

      December 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Well, I'm not an Atheist, but I would be smiling. So far, I've had an incredible life.

      To be honest, I hope I see anything that ends an entire species or planet. Anything that powerful must be an awesome, beautiful spectacle.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
    • Bob

      Nice troll!

      December 17, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  19. vel

    This article does a good job in showing that religion is nothing more than a human creation. We make our religion to suit ourselves and our current culture. There is nothing to show it is "divinely" inspired at all. Each theist has created their own god to reflect their hates and desires, cherry-picking their holy books to excuse their vengeful primitive gods and to try to gain some "divine" validation for their claims of how "evil" or "good" something is and how "special" they want to claim to be. "My invisible friend is better than yours" is a sad thing in this age.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      In the beginning, Man created God.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • vel

      yes, nice little myth. Care to try again?

      December 17, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  20. Terre

    "Man will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest"
    Denis Diderot

    Wise words indeed.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.