Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Religious Freedom or More God in Foreign Policy?

At the Washington Posts "On Faith" blog, David Waters looks at a recent independent study on religion and foreign affairs by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He reports:

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'sBerkley 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."

Scott Appleby, a professor at Notre Dame and the task force's lead writes at SSRC's The Immanent Frame:

Those who were most uncomfortable with making religious freedom the headline tended to imagine the term in ironic scare quotes. “Religious freedom” is perceived by many peoples around the world, not least Muslims of the Middle East, they argued, not as a universal human right, but as a superpower-charged means of advancing hegemonic U.S. (read: Christian or, worse from their perspective, Judeo-Christian) interests. This particular strain of anti-Americanism is inflamed by isolated episodes of Christian missionaries proselytizing defiantly (or clumsily) in settings where they were manifestly unwelcome, and thereby igniting riots and sometimes deadly violence. More broadly, some suspect that missionaries, preachers, or U.S. government agents (sometimes conflated in the anti-American imagination) seek to impose on vulnerable populations “The American Way of Religion”—i.e., voluntarism, church-state separation, a free marketplace of religious ideas—which foreign opponents of U.S. influence believe to be anything but a universal human good.


Through reasoned debate in an open public square, the Chicago Council task force members on both sides of this divide were able to identify and embrace common ground. Thus, the TFR calls for the appointment of a new ambassador-at-large with detailed knowledge of the challenges facing both majority and minority religious groups around the world—a person, further, who possesses the communications skills necessary to explain that “religious freedom” is not a hollow shell masking U.S. religious or economic ambitions, but a universal human right that applies to every religion, whether it be a majority or a minority in any given state. The oppression, persecution, or restriction of religious groups by their respective governments, the ambassador should proclaim, is an enormous impediment to the development of religious pluralism and participatory democracy everywhere. Ensuring a public square in which all religions may compete peacefully and lawfully for a hearing and influence is one way of tempering religious groups driven to extremism by exclusion and persecution, and of undercutting those religious cells that exploit state repression by recruiting young, disaffected believers to their ranks.

If our separation of church and state is to be a model to the world of how to foster religious tolerance, our domestic policies may need a little brushing up for credibility's sake. I look forward to watching how the Obama administration receives the Chicago Council's report - and how the current factionalized Republican party receives it as well.

UPDATE: Susan Jacoby takes a swing at the report here.

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