By David Waters
American foreign policy is handicapped by a God gap, a narrow, ill-informed and “uncompromising Western secularism” that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures, and fails to engage and encourage religious groups that promote peace, human rights and the general welfare of their communities.
That’s the conclusion of the independent Chicago Council on Global Affairs‘ two-year study of religion’s role (or lack of it) in American foreign policy. In its report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” the council’s 32-member task force warns of a serious “capabilities gap” and recommends that President Obama and his National Security Council make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”
The 99-page report was issued Tuesday and delivered to the White House, which is studying the issue, said Thomas Wright, the council’s executive director of studies. Some members of the independent task force also are working with the White House commission and they have been trading notes, Wright said. “We’re confident that everyone agrees this is a priority for this administration, not a matter of if we need to do this but how. We hope this report will give them a framework for how,” Wright said.
American foreign policy’s God gap has been noted by others in recent years, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “Diplomats trained in my era were taught not to invite trouble. And no subjects seemed more inherently treacherous than religion,” she said in 2006.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment’s reluctance to engage religion continues today, the task force says. “The role of nationalism and decolonization was not widely understood in the U.S. until after the Vietnam War, despite considerable supporting evidence in the 1950s. Such is the case with religion today,” says the task force’s report, released at a conference at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.
“Religion has been rapidly increasing as a factor in world affairs, for good and for ill, for the past two decades. Yet the U.S. government still tends to view it primarily through the lens of counterterrorism policy. The success of American diplomacy in the next decade will not simply be measured by government-to-government contacts, but also by its ability to connect with the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world whose identity is defined by religion.”
The task force, led by R. Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame and Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, quotes a December 2009 survey by the Pew Forum that found “public tensions between religious groups” in 87 percent of the world’s nations. “Religion,” the task force says, “is pivotal to the fate” of such nations as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indian, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen, which are all vital to U.S. national and global security.
“Despite a world abuzz with religious fervor,” the task force says, “the U.S. government has been slow to respond effectively to situations where religion plays a global role.” those include, for example, the growing influence of Pentecostalism in Latin America, evangelical Christianity in Africa and religious minorities in China and the Far East.
U.S. officials have made some efforts to address the God gap, especially in their dealings with Islamic nations and groups. The CIA established an office of political Islam in the mid-1980s. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 to make religious freedom a U.S. foreign policy and to appoint an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a response to growing concern about religious persecution abroad.
During the second Bush administration, the Department of Defense rewrote the Army’s counterinsurgency manual to take special account of cultural factors, including religion. President Bush appointed an envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And the Obama administration has worked to engage the Muslim community, especially in the Middle East, beginning with Obama’s address to the Muslim world last June, in which he called for “broader engagement with the Muslim world.”
U.S. foreign policy needs a broader engagement with all religious communities, the task force argues.
“The national security apparatus of the U.S. government pays more attention to religion than it used to, largely through the harsh learning process of trial and error,” Wright said. “These initiatives are welcome, but all, to some extent or another, were borne out of separate setbacks or failures–the Iranian revolution of 1979, al-Qaeda’s war against the United States, and the counterproductive application of conventional war strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
To end the “episodic and uncoordinated nature of U.S. engagement of religion in the world,” the task force — which includes former government officials, religious leaders and scholars, and leaders of international organizations — recommends:
1. Training foreign service officers, diplomats and other key diplomatic, military and economic officials to more deeply understand religion’s impact on various groups around the world, using seminars, case studies, language studies and immersions in local religious communities.
The training should take advantage of the skills and expertise of military veterans and civilians returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also should enlist the help of educators, medical personnel, clergy and religion scholars who have knowledge and first-hand experience in various religious groups and cultures.
“We’re talking about religious literacy,” Appleby said. “Most of our foreign service officers and diplomats are just not up to speed, frankly, in their awareness of the complexities and dimensions of religion’s role around the world.”
The task force suggested that deeper knowledge and understanding of religious forces might have helped the U.S. respond more quickly and effectively, for example, to al-Qaeda’s February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites. The attack was designed to provoke Shiites to attack Sunni extremists so that the larger Sunni community would rally in defense. In other words, the attack was calculated to spark civil war. It did.
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq had spectacularly thrust a religiously laced dagger into the heart of Iraq,” the task force reports. “American officials almost entirely ignored the incident and failed to grasp its significance for four-and-a-half long months as Iraqi society came apart along already strained religious seams . . . It was not the first time ignorance about the role of religion in world affairs has inhibited smart strategic thinking.”
2. Empowering government departments and agencies to engage religious communities more effectively “at the societal level, not just the governmental or diplomatic level.” Local religious communities are central players in the promotion of human rights and peace, as well as the delivery of health care and other forms of assistance.
For example, the task force notes, “In two provinces in Nigeria, USAID made the mistake of not engaging with the dominant Islamic network when it was trying to inoculate the local population against polio.” Local imams issued religious rulings against the inoculations.
In India, however, when USAID engaged the support of the Islamic Council of Doctors, “the council issued fatwas declaring that anyone who did not get their child vaccinated against polio would be acting in violation of Islam.”
3. Removing obstacles, real or perceived, to constructive engagement with religious groups overseas. That begins with the First Amendment. “There has been an assumption that U.S. officials are constitutionally prohibited from engaging with religious communities overseas, because of the separation of church and state at home,” Cizik said. “That’s just not the case.”
The task force acknowledges that the lines are unclear, and that the U.S. government can’t support the “establishment” of religion at home or abroad. But it is asking the Obama administration to clarify as much as possible what the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does and does not allow the U.S. do to overseas. Five members of the task force dissented on this point, taking a broader view and saying the administration should merely issue “clear, short policy guidance that ‘the Establishment Clause does not bar the United States from engaging religious communities abroad in the conduct of foreign policy.'”
4. Address and clarify the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Cizik said some parts of the world — the Middle East, China, Russia and India for example — are particularly sensitive to the U.S. government’s emphasis on religious freedom and see it as a form of imperialism, even Christian imperialism. “Some see it as a cover for advancing U.S. interests, and frankly Judeo-Christian interests in those regions,” Cizik said. “We should address that directly and clearly.”
The task force recommends that the administration appoint and empower an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, as established by IRFA, to integrate religious freedom “intro broader U.S. foreign policy concerns such as counterterrorism, democracy promotion and economic development.”
UPDATE: Thomas Wright, the council’s executive director of studies, said task force members met Tuesday afternoon with Joshua Dubois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Parnterships, as well as officials from the State Department. “They were very receptive and they said that there is a lot of overlap between the task force’s report and the work they have been doing on this same issue,” Wright said.
Dubois declined to comment on the report, but posted this on his White House blog late Tuesday afternoon: “The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership and the National Security Staff are working with agencies across government to analyze the ways the U.S. government engages key non-governmental actors, including religious institutions, around the globe. This internal effort will proceed over the coming months by assessing how the United States, across multiple federal agencies, currently engages religious institutions and actors and identify areas for improved partnerships.”
The Chicago Council isn’t as influential as the Council on Foreign Relations or some other Washington-based think tanks, but it does have a longstanding relationship with the President. Obama spoke to the council once as a state senator and twice as a U.S. senator, including his first major foreign policy speech as a presidential candidate in April 2007. Michelle Obama is on the Chicago Council’s board.