American foreign policy’s God gap

By David Waters American foreign policy is handicapped by a God gap, a narrow, ill-informed and “uncompromising Western secularism” that … Continued

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.

(Read Thomas Wright’s more elaborate response.)

Written by

  • alance

    The Big Lie: “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.Only Iran is potentially a threat to our national security. The rest of the world hates it when Hillary preaches to them on any subject: from climate scare to religion.If American foreign policy is handicapped by a God gap – it is because American religious leaders should be speaking out against the terrible Afghan War and Occupation – Obama’s War.

  • coloradodog

    In lieu of a narrow, ill-informed and “uncompromising” Catholic theocracy.

  • Elnok

    This is another ridiculous crack at Democrats as the godless party. Of course Bush took advantage of religion– one need look no further than the abstinence-only policies of AIDS funding in Africa and the resulting advent of mass homophobic hysteria in Uganda, all courtesy of our friends who believe their god is under attack. This sounds like just another rant by those people who usually use the holiday season to say that “Christmas is Under Attack!” or some other such nonsense.Now if we take out the word “religion” and replace it with “culture,” I think we can very much follow the Chicago Council’s advice. Or, we can read that old business manual “Kiss Bow or Shake Hands” and expand it to foreign policy.

  • EddDoerr

    Elnok is right that replacing “religion” with “culture” is the better approach. Also, the US should always side with religious freedom and separation of religion and government, rather than, say, remaining silent in the face of such things as the malignant patriarchalism promoted by the Afghan Taliban, Muslim fundamentalism, or the current Nicaraguan limitation on women’s freedom of conscience. After all, separation of religion and government, pioneered in the US, has been proven to be a vast improvement over all forms of religion-government union with regard to individual religious freedom. — Edd Doerr, Pres., Americans for Religious Liberty,

  • amillionto1

    Wait a minute. It takes 32 people TWO YEARS to do this study (ON MY DIME, no doubt) and all they do is prepare a 99-page report with recommendations (which will probably never be read or adopted). This is just more government waste of taxpayer dollars. Sorry. Not to mention that ALL RELIGIONS are created by men (most to enrich their creators, not THE Creator – if there even is one, of which there is NO scientific or irrefutable evidence.) Eliminate religion, and we will most likely eliminate war as well!!! Love your enemies and treat all people like you want to be treated, please.

  • ex-Virginian4

    Not having read the report, it seems to me like a solution in search of a problem. The previous Administration’s failure to react to the Golden Mosque attack, or much in Iraq, was not so much a failure to understand any particular religious outlook as a deliberate failure to plan for or deal with the chaos its invasion created. The different outcomes for polio vaccination in Nigeria and India might well be attributable, as my coreligionist Edd Doerr and others have pointed out, to culture as much as to religion.In my own experience, U.S. officials were never shy about meeting, or setting up meetings for others, with the Catholic hierarchy in Nicaragua during the first Sandinista regime there — even though our brothers in Christ took a decidedly different view of what needed to be done about it from that of the U.S. Government. And my colleagues who were sent to Pakistan and other Islamic countries received a thorough grounding in local customs, including the precise rituals of Friday mosque worship.I’m left wondering how this report or its recommendations will add to the important work many public servants are doing to protect U.S. interests abroad, working both with and in some cases in spite of local religious influences.

  • icemachine79

    I hope this report is read carefully by those in charge as it is entirely correct about the effect religion has around the world: a universally negative one. Sure, there are lots of charities and people doing good works in the name of religion, but there is a far greater number using it to commit all sorts of horrendous crimes. Plus all of those good works are not predicated on religion. They should be done anyway out of humanitarian concerns. Of course any subject can be used for nefarious purposes, as the intelligent design crowd likes to remind us when it comes to natural selection and eugenics in the early 20th century, but by far the most dangerous and easily manipulated is religion. Since it is not grounded in reality, religion can be perverted and rewritten constantly to suit just about anyone’s needs, and frequently that is what happens. The developed world has progressed beyond the need for religion to keep communities together, and the sooner we remove it from public life the sooner the third world nations might follow our lead. Sectarian violence would be a thing of the past, and people would be much harder pressed to find a way to justify their crimes if they don’t have “God” on their side.

  • greyhound1

    My first reaction, on reading the beginning of the article, was “No, no, no – a thousand times no!” We should never have to inject religion into our secular government in order to be able to deal with others!Well, it turns out that the recommendations of the panel are entirely sensible.As far as replacing the word “religion” with “culture”, it seems to me that in the past we’ve focused on culture *to the exclusion of religion*, and this report simply underlines the fact that we need to know the implications of the given religion at least as well as we know the rest of the culture. I agree that in many ways religion is a negative influence. We can’t, however, simply swoop in and impose “enlightenment”, agnosticism, Deism or even simply secularism on anyone – as shown by our own countrymen. If nothing else, this is a good start. If we begin to understand where others are coming form, then perhaps they will be willing to try to understand us.

  • skipsailing28

    wow. The anti religionists are all over this. How sad. The lack of tolerance shown by these people is saddening.that said, let me trigger some really nasty responses by stating that the Iraq war was and is a great idea. We didn’t always prosecute it as well as we might have, but ultimately we achieved something great. How can I say this? Well it seems that VP Biden has claimed Iraq for Obama. How bad could it be?I wonder how ex-virginian can defend his use of the word “deliberate”. I’m interested in reading the support that is offered by that commenter.To utahreb I would simply pass along the fact that the word “crusade” has a variety of meanings. In my dictionary (Webster’s new collegiate circa 1977) the second definition reads thusly: a remedial enterprise undertaken with zeal and enthusiasm.For example Dwight Eisenhower titled his WW2 memoir “Crusade in Europe”. so which religion was invading which religion in that war?

  • austininc4

    There’s one word to describe Religion in this Country. “HYPOCRISY”Other Countries around the world want no part of this pseudo Religion in this Country. And most cultures take their worship very serious. Therefore they want no part of this “Do as I say do, not as I do” religion of the U.S.The world is watching as our country implodes, mainly because we elected a Black President. And it’s no secret that the United States is one of the most Racist Countries in the World.The world has seen the results of the spread of America Religion. Uganda is a Shining of example of the Reichwing Religious zealots. They have convinced the Uganda’s government, that murdering people who maybe Homosexual is alright with GOD.

  • kentigereyes

    God gap. That term has me laughing so hard that I am unable to respond to this article. Guess I’ll try later. Ken

  • kentigereyes

    Sorry skipsailing28, invading Ewrack was a most horrible idea. The only ‘good’? to come out of it was the continued stuffing of a few already over-stuffed pockets. You are very wrong on this. TFL, Ken

  • ex-Virginian4

    skipsailing28, I would defend my use of the word “deliberate” by pointing to the extensive work done by dedicated public servants in the State Department on the massive effort that would be needed to restore order to Iraq after the standing U.S. policy of regime change had been accomplished, work that was known to and “deliberately” ignored by but those in the previous Administration who pulled the trigger on an invasion they “deliberately” wanted to do on the cheap. How’d that work out for them? Not well, I would submit.And for your information, I have stood with my Catholic wife as she and her coreligionists, a word I use neither hollowly nor unfeelingly in any context, proclaimed the mystery of their faith; I have sung in Lutheran church choirs; I have attended services in Jewish synagogues and assisted at Jewish funerals; and I have made gassho to Buddhist monks. I’m sorry if you choose to find that intolerant of me or anyone else.

  • edallan

    Yes, undoubtedly foreign service officers and others should have a better understanding of the cultures and underlying mindsets of the peoples with whom the U.S. interacts. But I believe that generally people working in development DO recognize the importance of involving religious leaders, as well as other community stakeholders, in planning and implementing activities.However, an important point to note IS the fact that in the not-so-distant past the push for religious liberties and tolerance has been a very thinly veiled push primarily for the rights of Christianist fundamentalists to actively proselytize and when certain Christian organizations receive massive amounts of taxpayer money to hire only Christians of acceptable theology to work on international development projects.

  • Chops2

    “recommends that President Obama and his National Security Council make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”Clever…Like Osama Bin Laden does…yeah, that’ll make for a great flexible foreign policy…who were these goons making this recomendation, Haggard, Palin and Hannity?

  • Utahreb

    When we have those in our government who think that their religion is better than anyone else’s religion, then we have a return to the crusades. If you remember, Bush called the preemptive invasion of Iraq a “crusade” at the start. Would we want believers in another religion to invade the U.S. in the name of a “crusade”? I can hear the screams of the televangelists now, the preachers and priests, the Bible-thumpers and the religious right.We seem to be too self-righteous and too ready to believe that one God is better than another God – or whatever religion someone else believes in and follows.I, for one, don’t believe that anyone has God on speed-dial and that anyone who says he/she is “chosen” is full of you-know-what!

  • YondCassius

    Yes, our foreign policy should be based on a reasonable level of understanding of ALL deep strains of irrationality here and abroad, including religions and other major superstitions. Let it begin.

  • AlanBrowne

    Perhaps such a problem exists. Unfortunately the US “improvement” would be to send abroad more right wing religious loons on missions to gather more souls.

  • ThomasBaum

    amillionto1 You wrote, “Eliminate religion, and we will most likely eliminate war as well!!!”While we are at it, don’t you think that we should eliminate the United States of America and it’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, considering that these founding documents are not about “eliminating religion” but about the “free exercise” and not imposing a “state religion”?War comes in all shapes and sizes not just the “all out” version.Would the imposition of a “worldwide police state” to monitor every person’s every action to have “peace” be an acceptable “peace” to you?There will never be “peace” on this planet until the “new heavens and the new earth” for the simple reason that “peace” can not be imposed on a person, it must come from within.You then wrote, “Love your enemies and treat all people like you want to be treated, please.”I agree but do you honestly think that this will come to be?There would be absolutely no need for any man-made law whatsoever if people, ALL PEOPLE, would adhere to this, do they or have they ever?God gave us “free will” and whether or not one believes in God is immaterial as far as what use we make of that “free will” and whether or not we take “responsibility” for how we use that “free will”.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • lpullen

    It is interesting how many of the comments seem to be a misreading of the report. While it is clear that the U.S. should not seek to promote religion (the values the U.S. should seek to promote often have their grounding in religion)it is very nearsighted not to understand how important religion is to most of the world’s population. It is easy to misperceive religion’s impact given that the negative consequences are given so much media attention. It is easy to forget the positive contribution of religion in the U.S. for example in promoting civil rights and democracy. The point for the foreign policy establishment is not that religion is both good and bad but that it is so important to so many people and governments. To use the word “culture” as a substitute diminishes the importance of the role religion plays in the lives of people and therefore nations. While we might wish that religion might lose its violent edge within all societies (as the sociologist James Davison Hunter describes what happened in the US in his book “Culture Wars”)the only way U.S. policy can contribute to such an outcome is to acknowledge the importance of, and diversity within, each religion.

  • nickvalto

    What exactly makes this group qualified to tell us about foreign policy? Many of them are know-nothing religious scholars who’ve likely spent far more time poring over the Bible or Koran than reading Thucydides. And now they’ve come down from the mountain to tell us what God thinks. Thanks for the advice!