Q: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is recommending that the U.S. government develop a strategy to make religion ‘integral’ to American foreign policy. Should U.S. foreign policy get religion?
I have rarely read a document filled with more destructive premises and recommendations than the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 99-page report to the White House, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” The report’s basic premise–that American foreign policy is characterized by “uncompromising Western secularism” and that secularism fuels religious extremism throughout the world–tells you everything you need to know about the biases of this group. We launched a war in Iraq after President George W. Bush used the word “crusade” and said he had consulted a “Higher Power” before making his decision. This is secularism? A wise secularist would surely have told the president that getting involved in ancient sectarian religious/tribal quarrels might, in the long run, prove to be a very bad idea.
I can heartily endorse just one recommendation of this report–that foreign service officers and other officials dealing with international affairs should be educated to understand more about religion’s impact in various communities throughout the world. Religious literacy is part of cultural literacy and ought to be required of every diplomat. One aspect of this awareness, however, should be a respect for and understanding of the profound secular objections by many government officials in Europe and Asia to the religiosity, both real and perceived, that influences American policy.
Most of the other recommendations are stunning in their naivete. One major suggestion to the White House is that obstacles, real and perceived, “to constructive engagement with religious groups overseas” should be removed. The First Amendment, it seems, is one of those obstacles. The group doesn’t recommend revoking the First Amendment, of course. It simply recommends that U.S. diplomats be disabused of any notion that they are constitutionally prohibited from engaging with religious communities overseas because of the separation of church and state at home. Considering the mischief and outright harm that has resulted from the engagement of American private citizens with religious groups abroad (such as the engagement of right-wing Christian homophobes with homophobic Christian groups in Uganda), one can only shudder at the thought of diplomats being urged to work more closely with religious groups. And exactly how are we to know which sects within religious groups shuld be engaged? Should U.S. diplomats in Israel sit down with ultra-right rabbis who strongly support the expansion of settlements? Or should we offend the right-wingers by meeting with Jewish groups in Israel that consider the settlements a moral disaster? There is a huge difference between being aware of the importance of religious differences in a society and directly engaging with such groups.
Another recommendation is that foreign policy-makers “clarify the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.” Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, one of the leaders of the task force, noted that in some areas of the world–including the Middle East, China, Russia and India–the U.S. government’s emphasis on religious freedom is seen as a form of imperialism–even Christian imperialism. Well, that’s true. The Russian government, while officially secular, is playing footsie with the Russian Orthodox Church and is quite hostile to proselytizers like Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Chinese government doesn’t like it when we support the rights of Tibetan Buddhists. Throughout the Middle East, fundamentalist Muslims see our upholding of universal human rights–such as the rights of women–as an insult to their religion. I am not even sure, after reading the report, what we could possibly say to “clarify” these issues. Should we say that we support women’s rights–but not if this position offends someone else’s religion? Do we or do we not think it’s a good idea to have American missionaries proselytizing in places where any misunderstanding has the potential to set off a major foreign policy crisis? Or should we perhaps tell the rest of the world that while religious liberty is guaranteed by our Constitution, other countries may conduct beheadings for heresy, and we won’t say a word, if their cultural or religious traditions permit such acts?
The role of religion around the world, and in individual nations and regions, is so complicated that I cannot imagine anything good resulting from American diplomats becoming more closely involved with religious communities abroad. How do we know, for example, which group of imams in Nigeria is likely to approve of polio vaccination and which is likely to denounce vaccinations as a Christian-Zionist-imperialist plot?
One thing is clear about this task force: it was anything but impartial. This report was not written by vigorous upholders of the separation of church and state. Many of the people who prepared this unwise set of recommendations are dedicated to the idea that there should be more religious involvement in government at home, so it was entirely predictable that they would recommend that America become more involved with religion abroad. President Obama should deal with this report the way Abraham Lincoln dealt with Protestant ministers who, during the Civil War, asked him to support a Christian amendment to the Constitution that would declare Jesus Christ the source of all governmental power. Lincoln promised to “take such action as my conscience and my duty to my country demand.” His action was to take no action at all.