How religion has been used to promote slavery
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, but he and other religious giants accepted slavery for others, scholars say.
March 29th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

How religion has been used to promote slavery

By John Blake, CNN

Editor’s note: The CNN documentary 'Slavery's Last Stronghold' airs on CNN International TV March 29, 30, 31 and April 22. Check local listings for times.

(CNN) - Which revered religious figure - Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Mohammad - spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?

Answer: None of them.

One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban - slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say.

Most modern people of faith see slavery as a great evil. Though the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disagree on many matters, most of their contemporary followers condemn slavery.

Yet there was a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely cited the words and deeds of their founders to justify human bondage, scholars say.

At times, religion was deployed more to promote the spread of slavery than to prevent it.

Read about present-day slavery in Mauritania

“The lesson in all this is we need historical humility,” says Daniel C. Peterson, author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God.” “It’s stunning for us to look back now and say, how can people face themselves in the mirror after doing what they did, but they did.”

But what did the founders of the three great Western religions do? Did they have slaves and did they condemn the practice? Or were they, at least on this issue, squarely men of their times?

The answers to these questions are as murky and contradictory as history itself.

What’s a slave?

Part of the problem is historical context. Most contemporary people think of slaves as people condemned to a lifetime of bondage, working on plantations and being whipped like oxen.

That kind of slavery did exist during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad. Many slaves were prisoners of war; concubines, gladiators, laborers in salt mines. They could be killed, raped and discarded at any moment.

Yet there were layers of slavery in the ancient world. Many slaves would be seen today as indentured servants, or people trying to pay off debts; royal bodyguards and entrepreneurs, historians say.

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Sometimes the slaves became masters. In medieval Egypt, Muslim rulers trained and educated slaves to be their bodyguards. One group of slaves grew so powerful that they overthrew the rulers of Egypt and established their own dynasty, says Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Languages and Culture at Harvard University.

“Slavery meant different things in different cultures,” Asani says. “There wasn’t always this sense of powerlessness and oppression. In certain forms, it became an access to power.”

In other forms, it became access to freedom, says John Dominic Crossan, one of world’s leading scholars on the life and times of Jesus.

That was the case in the world of Jesus. The Roman Empire was the dominant power of Jesus’ day, and it survived on the backs of millions of slaves. Yet there was only one mass slave revolt against Rome, which was led by Spartacus, a gladiatorial slave, Crossan says.

The reason there were so few massive slave rebellions against Rome was because some of its slaves had avenues for advancement, dim though they may seem to modern sensibilities.

Slaves could buy their freedom. They ran businesses for their masters or tutored their children. Greek slaves, in particular, were often valued because of their education and culture, he says.

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Roman slavery was cruel and capricious, but not all Romans saw slaves as subhuman.

“One of the most extraordinary aspects of Roman slavery,” says Crossan, author of “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus,” was that the Romans ended up with a huge number of slaves who were smarter than their masters.”

The uncomfortable historical record

It’s been said that great religious figures transcend history. They rise above the peculiar customs of their day to show a new path forward.

It’s a matter of debate if Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad did that with slavery. All three seemed to either ignore or tolerate some forms of slavery, some scholars say.

The parables of Jesus, for example, were full of references to slaves. Terms like “servants” or “stewards” are what we would call slaves today. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to make any moral judgments about slavery in his parables, Crossan says.

The subject may have been irrelevant to him or his audience, says Crossan, the Jesus scholar. Jesus didn’t own any slaves. Neither did his disciples or the crowds Jesus addressed. They were all too poor and lived under desperate economic circumstances.

“It may well be that the people he talked to were small farmers who would not have the luxury of slaves,” Crossan says. “He [Jesus] doesn’t say anything for or against it.”

Still, Crossan says that he believes that Jesus would have opposed slavery, given the nature of his teachings. Scholars aren’t so certain about Jesus’ most influential disciple, the Apostle Paul.

The man whose writings make up most of the New Testament had to deal with slavery. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, many slaves joined the church.

At various parts of the New Testament, Paul seems to accept slavery. He tells slaves to obey their masters. At other times, Paul seems to challenge the morality of slavery. In one New Testament letter, Paul intercedes on behalf of a runaway slave and chides the master for calling himself a Christian and holding a slave.

Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome.

“It’s one thing to say that Jesus is Lord,” Crossan says. “Now if you’re saying a Christian can’t have slaves, then something must be wrong with slaves. So now you’re attacking the Roman system, which is a slave economy.”

Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say.

American Christians who owned slaves had a simple but powerful defense in the run-up to the Civil War. The Old and New Testament sanctioned slavery and, since the Bible is infallible, slavery is part of God’s order, says Mark Noll, author “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

“The defenders of slavery said Jesus condemned quite a few things that were standard in the Old Testament,” Noll says. “He condemned polygamy, violence, easy divorce, but he never condemned slavery.”

Let my people go, but keep the others

Neither did Moses, the founder of Judaism, say other scholars.

There’s no record of Moses owning slaves, but the Mosaic laws permitted and regulated slavery, says Peterson, the author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God” and a religious scholar at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Still, under Mosaic law, a master was encouraged to free slaves and forgive debts after a certain period of time that was called the year of jubilee, Peterson says.

“They were not trying to create a permanent underclass of slaves that went from parents to child and child and grandchildren,” Peterson says of the ancient Israelites.

But how could ancient Israelites sanction any form of slavery given their exodus from Egyptian captivity? Didn’t their God explicitly condemn slavery when he ordered Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go?”

The text is not clear on that question, says Brannon Wheeler, a religious scholar.

He says the Exodus stories suggest that the God of Israel was angry at Pharaoh not for enslaving a group of people, but for unjustly enslaving the “Chosen People” - the people God had promised to give their own homeland.

“In order to make that promise stick, He [God] has to get them out of Egypt,” says Wheeler, director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Maryland.

“It’s not like He [God] says slavery is bad and I want to abolish it.”

The Prophet Mohammad never explicitly condemned slavery, and actually owned slaves, some scholars say.

Yet he recognized the humanity of slaves, teaching followers that freeing slaves was an act of piety. He allowed slaves to buy their freedom and demanded that they should be treated with love and respect, says Asani, author of  “Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry.”

“He himself did own slaves but he treated them as family,” Asani says. “One called Zayd he treated like an adopted son and one of his wives was a Coptic Christian slave.”

The followers of men like the Prophet Mohammad, though, would take a harsher attitude toward slaves.

By the time of the crusades, Christians and Muslims were enslaving one another by the thousands. They cited their faith as justification, says Robert C. Davis, author of “Holy War and Human Bondage.”

“Religion was the defining principle of slavery—this person is another faith and can be enslaved,” Davis says.

Some church leaders preached that enslaving others was an act of evangelism, Davis says.

“One pope said that the justification for slavery was that it was important for spreading the faith,” Davis says. “Once they were enslaved, they would more readily take to Christianity.”

Those kinds of actions may now seem barbaric, but the texts and stories that were used to justify slavery still exist in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Few, though, would quote those scriptures today, and many don’t even know they exist.

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” says Jonathan Brockopp, a religion professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Religions redefine themselves and people draw on different stories and underplay other stories. This happens constantly.”

It happened with slavery, and, who knows, perhaps it’s happening again in our time. There may be a religious practice accepted today that future generations will look upon and ask the same question we ask about people who enslaved others in the name of God:

How could they?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Africa • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church and state • Egypt • History • Islam • Islamic law • Islamic law • Israel • Jesus • Moses • Muslim • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,207 Responses)
  1. OGR99

    Slavery? Don't forget the Federal Government....

    March 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  2. information

    now the three religions just attempt to war on each other, marganilize and disparage each other.
    not much progress at all in any areas.
    need to give no religion a few thousand years to see what it can do.

    March 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Wake Up

      A world with no religion would be the end of man. Even if evil is done in the name of religion (and it is), religion suppresses the true evil and selfish nature of the masses.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  3. Orlando

    Christianity did not enslave anybody. Roman Catholocism which is a pagan religion enslaved people. That is why religion is no good. Jesus did not invent a religion man invented religion because in their stupidity they felt God didnt make salvation perfect so they ruined it. You don't need religion you only need Jesus theres a big difference between the two. Jesus came to set the captives free. Religion came to bring bondage.

    March 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • information

      jesus was a fictional character in some books written as a prank by several University of Babalon.
      They have taken off well and the god sellers are making big money still selling the cult books.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • ensense

      I have to hand it over to you atheists you have tried you very best to make Jesus a fictional character. but you know what you are still a minority and will be for a long time to come, so suck on it.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • huh

      The basic premise of the article is that people used passages from the old and new testament (which is supposed to be the word of god, therefore jesus0 to justify slavery. Do you follow jsus but not the bible?

      March 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • huh

      Ensense – the majority of the people of nazi germany believed hitler was right.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • ensense

      so the majority of the people of soviet union believe that stalin was right.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  4. Dave

    The only religion which never had slavery is ISLAM!? Research the history to see for yourself. During the past 100 years Christians and Jews have been imposing two world wars, the current middle east wars (result of west predominantly Christian and Jews!?) and slavery on the world, as late as 60 years ago. These atrocities still go on killing innocent deprived women and kids. Slavery is a fact and a shame. Muslim nations have been a victim of Zionism greed led by the west through wars and dictatorship imposed on them by the west Zionism greed!? Who has been and is supporting the most cruel dictatorships in the world!? I.e. Saudi Arabia? Yemen? Kuwait? Qatar? UAE? Bahrain? Mubarak Egypt? ...etc. The questions is whether the countries which have been supporting wars, killing, use of atom against a none atomic nation killing hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children and still supporting theses atrocities are predominately Christians and Jews not Muslims!? Why do you think Zionists and their supporters try to show the Islam as enemy!? Because Islam from its inception has been against the slavery (never had it) and wars on the deprived!? Whereas Zionism lives on wars, killing, and stealing from the deprived nations to feed the Zionism greed!?

    March 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • ensense

      Islam is the only religion which has systematically slavery. The slave trades of Africa were Arab Muslims even to this day there is slavery in mail Mauritania where the Arabs are the Masters and blacks are the slaves. I have seen 1 thing about Muslims you will say a lie repeatedly until people think it is a fact.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • information


      The only religion which never had slavery is ISLAM!?

      your pseudo science is flawed and you are a really poor researcher.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • TR6

      “The only religion which never had slavery is ISLAM”

      I CALL BS ON YOU! Please explain the following passage from the qran

      "Forbidden to you are...married women, except those you own as slaves." (Surah 4:20-, 24-)

      March 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  5. Wake Up

    The uncomfortable fact is the world is better off because of religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • LOL

      "The uncomfortable fact is the world is better off because of religion."

      No it's not, it's worse and needs to be destroyed.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Wake Up

      How Christian-sounding of you.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • sosume

      Based on what?

      March 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • mike w

      When religion ruled the world, we called it the Dark Ages.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • ensense

      When atheists ruled the USSR it was GULAG.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • notanapologist

      better off?

      do you read the news? violence in the name of Islam? intolerance in the name of the bible? if you want to find misogyny, intolerance, brutality, slavery, and a bizarre celestial North Korea to someone who doesn't exist but who must be obeyed.....then just look on the pulpit in every church in America.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  6. Ninschinwii

    Jesus would not have felt the need to condone or condemn slavery because "His kingdom is not of this world." In other words, he was trying to teach people how to get to heaven not fix the termporal ills of his or later times. If people throughout history used religion to condone slavery, that's a basterdization of the religious teaching; nothing else.

    March 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • achpotle

      yes, it is a fairy tale unconnected the the suffering of the real world...agreed.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • huh

      Nins – I agree with you on that. I believe that the teachings of christ were that no matter what happened to you in this world, as long as you kept your faith in him, you would achieve eternal salvation.

      I've had a number of christians point out that it's not through good deeds that you attain heaven, it's through acceptance of christ, so you wouldn't necessarily have to free your slaves. However, they also point out that if you truely believed in christ, you would want to follow his example and so would not own slaves.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  7. Joe

    You don't need church or religion to be a good person. That's the brainwashing garbage your church tells you so you keep coming back and putting money in the donation plate.

    March 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • spearvault

      Couldn't say it any simpler, I completely concur!

      March 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  8. DoYouHear

    I agree that religion has enslaved people, just as non-religion has enslaved people.
    The (Hebrew) scriptures show us that all men are slaves/servants of either one house or the other, Of The Kingdom Of Heaven, or of the kingdom of this world. And that now having the knowledge of good & evil, we now have a means of comparison, and thus are given freedom to choose.

    And this is my choice, that ~It Is Better To Be A Slave In The House Of A Wise & Compassionate Master, Than A Free Man Who Is A Fool, But Wise To Himself And Others Like Him.~

    March 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  9. Mickey

    Religion – a force for good as well as for evil – history has proven that, over and over and over and over.

    Human beings have not evolved into creatures of lovingkindness and love – they have to be taught to love and to be kind – to themselves and to others.

    It's the ultimate 'kill the messenger' aka Jews.

    I will watch with great interest and with a continuing open mind.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  10. Bad

    There has been only one form of government from the beginning of time. The haves controlling the havenots. It doesn't matter what you call it. You are a slave wether you know it or not. You own no property wether you think you do or not. Stop going to work everyday and see. Stop paying the tax on your house and see who really owns it. If religion didn't exist it would need to be invented. To keep the masses enslaved one must give them hope, religion fills that role. We are all hoping fore something better in the next life instead of here and now. In the world today name one conflict that is not about religion. Money is not the root of all evil... What atrocities have not been committed in the name of religion?

    March 29, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • huh

      Nail head...hammer...perfect hit.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Lilith

      The first part of your statement basically says we are living under "preventative" slavery .. work or you lose your freedom and property.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • DoYouHear

      Doubt Is the root of all evil.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • LOL

      "Doubt Is the root of all evil."

      Even Mother Theresa wrote in her diary she doubted god existed, by your stupid logic she was evill. LOL!

      March 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Glenn


      Good points. I would only suggest a small change and that is

      What atrocities have not been committed in the name of Moral Superiority?

      Moral Superiority can be a secular belief as well as religious one.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Wake Up


      Change Moral to Perceived. Some people know they weren't moral persons and committed atrocities, but they always believed they were better than the next guy.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • ensense

      Agree with Ben Atheist are no better than religious fanatics.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  11. Lilith

    Religion doesn't condone slavery .. people condone slavery.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • George

      But religion is often the conduit by which they are influenced to endorse it.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • notanapologist

      what do you call someone who must obey their master? the bible and koran are clear on this point....you must obey. So its right their in the relationship between God and its followers. Then you can add on the additional layer of the tolerance and worse of slavery. Remember the "good" lord asked his followers to massacre the Amalekites.....not even a chance to be a slave that time. Funny that there is no edict against slavery in the bible....how could there be....

      So either you believe the gross immoralities in the bible...or perhaps the bible is man made.... pick one.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Jay

      The Bible specifies how to purchase slaves and how to beat them. Can't speak for other religions, but the holy book of Christianity does indeed condone slavery.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Ghost of Esther

      Yes but religion is a human interpretation

      March 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  12. amust

    many finanacial dealings and home mortage system is modern form of economic slavery. it is pretty much same as in old days...a large number of normal genes work for a very few , very smart, very intelligent genes.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • rex

      You mean the mortage that people enter into VOLUNTARILY? That doesn't sound like slavery.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Born of innocense are all the children. Born into though is a different story altogether! Some children are born into slavery while others are born into masters of slaveries. The keys to the masters of slavery are and have been thrown down amidst those slaves who fight for the users! Sorry Clue! I like Tron am against totalitarianisms of all kinds.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  13. BEN


    March 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Peeta

      God and his danged carnivores!

      March 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      We eat in the abundancies offered by Godliness concerns which He created all mannerisms of Life from which we dare consume. Rats and Mice and all manner of insects do other cultures eat. One culture even eats the bird do-do collected to make a soup! MmmMmm MMmmmM Good!

      March 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • sam

      God gave us sloths, and fruit bats, and rat without so much spam in it, to enjoy unto ourselves so it is written.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  14. Voxhumana

    Unfortunately, religion and god have been used forever to justify the destruction, torture, enslavement, exploitation and annihilation of practically anyone who ever disagreed with anyone else in the history of MAN. Every organized religion is guilty. Find your religion if you must, but don't push it on others. If your religion or belief is meaningful, people will come to it of their own choice. Forcing it, trying to persuade, disparaging or ridiculing others does not enhance your religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • huh

      Well written!

      March 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  15. me

    love will set you free because love is not any religion

    March 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • David

      That reminds me of a quote..there is not enough love in this world to waste it on imaginary beings in another.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Jo

      Dear Me, God is Love.

      March 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  16. Pipe-Dreamer

    "I fight for the users!" Tron in light of the moment became caught up in user platonics.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  17. Slavery isn't good for children and other living things

    Prayer heals amputees

    March 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • nik

      Yeah, a lot of good it's done for all the amputees in the world, right? There are no amputees in the world anymore, because prayer healed them all, right?

      March 29, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • dude come on..

      Are you kidding me?

      March 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • JT

      lol...love the way you hi-jacked that other nut's style.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  18. ramu

    Anyone who thinks that slavery can exist for a long time, without religion does not know what they are talking about.
    Anyone who thinks that there is an invisible magical creature who lives in the sky has a part of his thinking that is slightly mad!

    March 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • wrob

      Slavery was used extensively in the Soviet Union. Guess that was due to the residual effect of Christianity?

      March 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      I revel in the abundancies of Godly diversionisms! I do no longer partake in religious folks' who but listen without sound judgements in their church'd devils of the cloth! Rise and be counted in with your seed faith gifts and you will be richly rewarded when you die! Bull-hockey pucks!

      March 29, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  19. Nobel

    Unfortunately, the article writter and the "scholars" he mentions do not know history well. The writer gives a distorted vision about Christianity. Jesus was never in favor of slavery, neither was Paul.

    What surprises me also, is that the (pseudo) scholars have never read the history of William Wilberforce that was a Chrisitian British politician and exactly because of his Christian faith he worked hardly (and succeeded) to abolish slave trade and slavery in England two centuries ago.

    It is also understood by historians that he had a great influence in abolishing slavery in US as well. Several times his life was under threat because of his position and work within the British Parliament. But he didn't stop. Why did he od that? Simply because he was Christian and believed the Bible.

    People should read more before writing an article and posts.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • JT

      What about the thousands of non-christians who thought slavery was wrong? The reason? Just simple human morality...no god required.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Voxhumana

      There are many practices that people espouse that have nothing to do with either the teachings of Jesus or his commandments. Killing Jews or was never espoused by Jesus, yet the Crusades were supported by the Catholic Church and resulted in Jews being killed. Of course, Islam didn't exist in the time of Jesus, but many in the churches support the destruction of Muslims. It's the organizations that become powerful and lose their way. Organized religion is always subject to the powerful. And the powerful have a hard time keeping holy.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Belief in anything can be used as a source of strength to persevere through hardship. Victor Frankel used the love for his wife and hope of being reunited with her to survive his hardship in concentration camp. Love, imagine that, consequently his wife was gassed. We all need reasons or something to believe in just to stay alive, otherwise we would all commit suicide. Religion is easy because we don't have to do any of the work. Someone else is telling us what to believe in order to be happy. It also gives us a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic world as there must be a reason why bad things happened. If your religion believes this then be thankful because God/Allah allowed slavery for a reason.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • ensense

      The crusades were a direct response to Islamic conquests of the christian holy land. Christianity originated and flourished in the current middle east, but you Muslims wiped us out, what did you expect us to sit quietly and do nothing. It is because of the crusades that you guys backed off. but you have still not given up trying. Even M K Gandhi has said the Muslim is a bully.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  20. Jesus

    I would have had slaves but I was too poor. I was too poor because I couldn't hold down a job because I had schizophrenia. I was an ignorant deranged lunatic. The end.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • JT

      I hear you are a decent carpenter though. Do you still take jobs? I need some new book shelves built.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • nik

      I hear he's a lawn care professional now.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:48 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.