God and foreign policy: From the frontlines to Embassy Row

Q: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is recommending that the U.S. government develop a strategy to make religion ‘integral’ … Continued

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?

Should religion be foreign policy’s partner? The answer is yes as long as the policy folks take religion on its own terms: religious faith can be a beneficent force used to promote peace and human flourishing or it can be hijacked for evil, hatred and violence. Religion is a critical ally that U.S. foreign policy ignores at its peril. President Obama was right to promote a deeper engagement of foreign policy and religion in Cairo recognizing the importance of religious allies in politics, human rights, aid and peacemaking across the globe. The greatest challenge, however, will not be to enact this at the highest levels of diplomacy but how effectively to engage players at the grassroots where people live.

Although the media often depict the violence of religious extremism, less visible are the stories where people of faith band together as citizen actors to change the course of their countries. I’m thinking about the women of Liberia, Muslim and Christian women, who with the catalytic and charismatic leadership of Leymah Gwobee decided they “wanted peace, no more war,” during the regime of dictator Charles Taylor. The women were tired of having their husbands and sons killed, their daughters raped in front of their eyes, and their young children going to sleep hungry.

At first the Christian and Muslim women thought they couldn’t work together–after all they were of different faiths–but their faith-fueled hopes for a different future and love of Liberia won the day. They marched and sat in, resorted to sex strikes and eventually helped to bring their men to the peace table. After a successful peace agreement, when the United Nations forces could not figure out how to disarm the rebel troops, the women stepped forward and the fighters disarmed for them–they were their “mothers” after all! Each religious group said they couldn’t have done it without the others. And so it goes, from Liberia to Johannesburg where religious forces enmeshed with political ones drove the anti-apartheid movement to success.

If U.S. diplomacy, from the grassroots front lines to Embassy Row,  intends to engage religion it must respect its power and put in the time to learn its complexity. Indigenous religions and believers cannot be harnessed and co-opted for utilitarian purposes to achieve the goals of U.S. foreign policy based on our terms and conditions. Religion cannot be domesticated and tamed for our purposes.  How religious freedom and democracy play in other countries may not easily align with our preconceived notions–as any U.S. soldier from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan could tell us! The notion of the nation-state itself that privileges the lives of its own citizens over the lives of others may in fact be at odds with a religious faith that considers all lives of equal value, because all are beloved children in the eyes of God.

As we have learned at Auburn in our programs that teach people about the religious other, U.S. foreign policy diplomats will need to approach believers in a way that is open, with curious questions and the willingness to learn and be changed by the encounter. The appropriate stance is authentic humility, awareness of the stereotypes one brings to the faith of another, the suspension of judgment, and the cultivation of genuine appreciation which is at the basis of any successful connection with another.

If this level of learning and appreciation can be cultivated at the level of U.S. foreign policy, it will go a long way to promoting greater human security and flourishing – what so many people of faith around the world are working, praying and dying for every day.

*Learn more about Leymah Gwobee and the women of faith who made history in Liberia at www.praythedevilbacktohell.com

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