It’s as imprudent to ignore the role of religion in foreign policy as it is to pretend that the elephant is in some other room, rather than right here.
At noon, in a quiet conference room of Capitol Hill’s Rayburn House Office Building, arriving invitees take seats around a U-shaped conference table. Conversation is minimal. These are busy senior staffers from the offices of key senators, representatives and legislative committees, who have wrested time from fierce schedules to come to this roundtable on religion and U.S. foreign policy. Designed especially for them, the event—on Islam and democracy—is presented by the Washington program of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Nancy E. Roman, vice president of the council and director of its Washington program, introduces the expert that these policy professionals have come to hear: Vali R. Nasr, Ph.D., of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., whose expertise on political Islam is voluminously documented in the handout supplied.
To outsiders, it might not seem surprising that religion would be the topic. After all, according to Richard N. Haass, Ph.D., president of the council, “Both at home and abroad, religion is playing a greater role than it has for centuries in the politics of foreign policy and in international relations more broadly.”But, in fact, what’s most unusual about this lunchtime event is that it’s happening at all; and what’s most unusual about Haass’s observation is that such a statement is seldom heard from foreign-policy leaders. In testimony before the U.S. House International Relations Committee in October 2004, Timothy S. Shah, Ph.D., a Pew Forum senior fellow in religion and world affairs, put it this way:
For too many foreign-policy makers and analysts, religion remains the elephant in the room. Most carry on as if the elephant really isn’t there. Among the few who do acknowledge the existence of the elephant, there are mainly two groups. One group insists that the elephant will quietly stay in the corner and can’t possibly upset the furniture. The other group orders the elephant to leave the room.
If that’s so, what explains the discrepancy? If Haass is right that religion now carries an importance in international relations that has been unparalleled for centuries, why does it garner so little attention from foreign-policy makers and analysts?
One answer, as explained at a forum event by Robert A. Seiple, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and chairman of the board of the Institute for Global Engagement, is that “it’s hard to talk about religion in the inter-agency process of Washington. After all, we have this separation of church and state, and the discussion of religion somehow is not supposed to happen in polite company. We’ve developed good governance in separation of church and state, but we’ve done it at a terrible price—the price of good analysis.”
From this point of view, there are two certainties underlying the Capitol Hill presentation by Professor Nasr: (1) the major involvement of religion in current international affairs and (2) a scarcity of good analysis about that involvement and our national tendency—indeed, a strong Western tendency—to shy away from addressing it.
The Issue, Part 1: The Role of Religion in International Relations
A truism is necessary at this point: Religion is important in human affairs because it affects the opinions and actions of individuals, groups and national leaders. Some of these opinions and actions are political. In the U.S., for example, white evangelical Protestants, who are about a quarter of the electorate, gave George W. Bush 40 percent of his votes in the 2004 election, an election which resulted in distinctive directions in U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
And as we have certainly seen in recent years, religious differences can cause or exacerbate violent confrontations. A list would have to begin with Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam in September and the Danish cartoon controversy earlier, but would then range far wider to include conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, Muslims and Christians in the Balkans and Hindus and Muslims on the Indian subcontinent.
The list would continue with terrorist attacks in the United States, England, Spain, Cyprus and the Netherlands, and with rioting in France. It would comprise many conflicts in Africa, including those in the Ivory Coast, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and Nigeria. To the south, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Haiti have recently experienced religion-related violence, as have India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in South Asia and Indonesia and East Timor in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, many diplomatic negotiations also involve religion. A prime example is the vigorous debate among members of the European Union—a group of nations with primarily Christian roots—over whether to admit largely Muslim Turkey. Europeans who resist Turkey’s inclusion cite the continent’s 1,300 years of troubled relationships with Islam and worry that the religious beliefs of Turks will make it hard for the country to accept some of Europe’s central values, including democracy, tolerance and equal rights for women.
There is growing recognition of the increasingly important role religion plays in international development, humanitarian assistance and conflict resolution. Because fighting poverty and providing social safety nets (often through health and education) are at the core of most of the world’s major religious traditions, faith groups and development professionals find themselves sharing common concerns.
Couple this with the high level of trust that faith-based organizations engender and their ability to reach deep into the communities, and one can see why development agencies are looking to faith groups as an important tool in their own efforts.
Religion has also been useful in conflict resolution, or “Track II Diplomacy,” in the world’s conflict zones, such as Sudan and Kashmir.
In both cases, members of opposing faith traditions are being brought together by non-governmental organizations in a series of faith-based reconciliation seminars.
Finally, a number of efforts toward global, governmental, inter-religious dialogue have cropped up since 9/11. For instance, the Alliance of Civilizations project, led by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan, aims to increase Christian-Muslim understanding.
The Issue, Part 2: Avoiding the Elephant
A major reason Americans avoid addressing religion’s role in international affairs is the U.S.’s commitment to the separation of church and state, which has at its heart the national principle of religious freedom. In fact, by law the U.S. Census does not ask about respondents’ religious affiliations. As a result, any analysis of the size and opinions of various American religious groups comes from voluntarily supplied information, such as the data gathered in surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center.
The history behind the church-state doctrine is strong. J. Bryan Hehir, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and one of the country’s leading Catholic intellectuals, explains that the doctrine originated in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended Europe’s devastating and religiously fueled Thirty Years’ War.
The treaty signaled the emergence of modern sovereign states, whose leaders were to refrain from using religious differences as a cause for interfering in the internal affairs of other territories. With some exceptions, the Westphalian model has retained its strong influence against religion-based international conflicts throughout Europe and beyond over the following centuries.
As a result, many of today’s foreign-policy experts tend to pay little attention to the elephant in the room, and many were actually taught that it is unimportant. In spite of what the Pew Forum’s Shah calls “an astonishing religious upsurge around the world” that began more than three decades ago, American university programs in international studies were generally very slow to take heed. He cites a survey showing that, among the 1,600 articles appearing between 1980 and 1999 in the nation’s four leading journals of international relations, only about a half dozen addressed the role of religion in international affairs.
When both Shah and the forum’s director, Luis E. Lugo, Ph.D., were completing their graduate education— in Shah’s case, as late as the early 1990s—they and other American students of comparative politics were taught that the contemporary evolution of nations happened through a process of modernization twinned with secularization. After all, that’s what had occurred in Europe. Students were further instructed, Lugo observes with a chuckle, that the only alternative models were “varieties of neo-Marxist frameworks—which also postulated a secularized world.”
By now, that astonishing religious upsurge has grown for more than 30 years, summarizes Shah, “and yet it’s still considered a novelty in some circles to look at the role of religion in foreign policy.”
Experts or not, all of us may have reasons for ignoring the elephant in the room. We may fear that even catching the elephant’s eye will agitate it further. Addressing religious differences means entering discussions where moral values—our own as well as those of others—may not be governed by reason alone, but may be held more fiercely than if they were.
As James Lindsay, a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written: “When people become certain of their moral rectitude, they can easily drift into sanctimony, so anybody who disagrees with them must, by definition, not really be interested in moral issues. That tends to poison debate rather than advance it.”
Nonetheless, many observers are now concluding we can no longer afford to neglect the international effects of religious attitudes. In a column that appeared in The Washington Post in January, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Hoagland wrote: “Americans—especially politicians, policy makers and journalists—need to put aside their constitutionally endowed reluctance to recognize and discuss the role that religion plays in politics and civic life at large. . . . As a nation, we need broad global strategies that explicitly take into account religion’s changing role around the world and the great potential for harm as well as for good that those changes offer.”
For approaching the task, Ambassador Seiple recommends: “Understand your own faith at its deepest and richest best. And understand enough about your neighbor’s faith to respect it.”
He doesn’t use the word tolerance: “In my way of thinking, tolerance is nothing more than a cheap form of grace applied to people that I don’t really care for. Respect speaks to what we have in common.”
Joining Forces to Promote Good Analysis
Another truism wrapped in a familiar fable: Blind men try separately to analyze an elephant, each feeling a single part. Obviously, they would do better if they were able to see the whole elephant and compare notes.
By early 2004, several people emerged who were eager to get and disseminate good information about religion’s role in international relations: in New York, Walter Russell Mead, the Council on Foreign Affairs’ Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy; and, in Washington, Roman, who would shortly become the director of the council’s program in that city, and Lugo, then the new director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The three would soon work together to offer foreign-policy leaders the kind of high-quality roundtables on religious issues represented by the event at which Vali Nasr spoke.
A project of the Pew Research Center, which is located in Washington, D.C., the forum has functioned as a “fact tank” and a town hall for journalists, civic and political leaders and advocacy groups. It’s an independent, nonpartisan project that does not take positions on the policy issues it addresses, most of which, until recently, have been domestic and all of which are affected by religious opinions. Examples include bioethics, the death penalty, same-sex marriage and school vouchers.
The forum’s town-hall meetings, featuring speakers on various sides of important religion-related issues, soon drew full houses, and its invitation- only events for journalists built a strong following. Jody Hassett, a former producer at ABC and CNN who now heads her own production firm, says, “Whoever does all the booking for that really thinks about who is doing the best thinking and who is ahead of the curve.”
What’s more, in forum events, “it’s not about the clash—it’s about thoughtful disagreement and engagement on the ideas,” she says, noting that this is very different from “that talk-show mentality where everyone’s looking for the points of disagreement.”
The project’s Web site is found at http://pewforum.org. It carries up-to-date information on the crossroads of religion and public affairs, including transcripts of many of its events, original reports and legal background papers, recent surveys and links to pertinent news stories from major U.S. publications. Visitors can sign up to receive the site’s weekly updates.
When Luis Lugo, a former professor of political science with expertise in religion and public policy and former director of the Trusts’ Religion program, became the forum’s director, one of his main goals was to add religion in foreign policy to the project’s issues list. This focus is currently expressed through roundtables and other events, as well as through the partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The foreign-policy events address wide-ranging subjects including Islam and democratization, Turkey and the European Union, American evangelical attitudes toward Israel, religious fault lines in West Africa, the rise of global Christianity and contemporary Vatican foreign policy. To measure domestic religious attitudes, the forum often draws heavily on surveys, especially data from the Pew Research Center.
In Washington, besides the congressional roundtables, the forum collaborates with the council to provide a series of events for policy makers in the military, defense, intelligence and security communities as well as for foreign-policy specialists and journalists. In New York, shared events are likely to be aimed at Wall Street and the business community plus the city’s international audience, intellectual and academic leaders and journalists.
Many of the forum’s own programs in Washington, too, are aimed at a range of policy makers. For example, a forum program on religion, security and violence drew staff members from the Department of State, the Department of Defense, USAID and the intelligence community, along with representatives of foreign embassies and non-governmental organizations.
Both the council and the forum hail the benefits of working together. “It’s a strategic partnership,” says Erin O’Connell, the forum’s program manager, “a way for us to get to a ready-made audience of bipartisan heavyweights—the gathering of the influentials in American foreign policy, left, right and center.”
Timothy Shah adds: “Over the long term, the influence [that the council has] on the thinking of [the foreign-policy] community—through their journal Foreign Affairs, through these meetings, through the task forces that they have—is incalculable. To have even a small impact on that organization ultimately yields a huge return.”
On the council’s side, Richard Haass, the organization’s president, says, “Our meetings on religion have elicited some of the most positive feedback we have ever received from our members.”
For Nancy Roman, the council’s Washington host at those congressional roundtables, policy makers trying to honor the separation of church and state might be anxious about addressing religion; but “because the forum is nonpartisan and straightforward and academic in its approach,” it provides “a good anchor” for the joint events.
At the council’s main base in New York City, Walter Russell Mead works closely with the forum’s Lugo on programming. The forum’s presence as “a major policy-oriented institute,” he says, “is wonderful for us, because on this religion and foreign-policy issue, there’s very little going on in disciplined study. There are a lot of good scholars and university people who have expertise, and there are people in the mission field who have another sort of expertise. But an institution that’s trying to create an integrated body of knowledge and support the creation of a discourse on the subject—that’s something that just wasn’t there and badly needs to be there.”
The Forum and Foreign Audiences
The forum has also become a regular stop for foreign-government officials and opinion makers. By the end of 2005, project staffers had briefed roughly 550 representatives from more than 60 countries, including a group of high-level Iraqi religious and political leaders. More than two-thirds of the total were either guests of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program or foreign journalists.
Others—including political counselors from more than 30 embassies— are drawn to some of the forum’s public activities and resources. A presentation titled “Does ‘Muslim’ Turkey Belong in ‘Christian’ Europe?” was attended by more than three dozen foreign officials, including the ambassador from Cyprus and embassy representatives from Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Pakistan and Romania as well as Turkey.
An Austrian embassy official declared that a forum colloquium on “Secular Europe and Religious America” was the best Washington thinktank event he’d ever attended. When Britain’s Prince Charles came to Washington in November 2005, he requested a special seminar on faith and social responsibility, and the forum’s Lugo was one of the invited participants.
Foreign visitors are often especially interested in Americans’ religious attitudes. Lugo reports that when staff members present statistics demonstrating the highly religious nature of the nation’s grassroots, many foreign listeners are stunned.
Shah says, “The Europeans are shocked; the Muslims are pleasantly surprised. We’ve all briefed Europeans who have this visible look of horror.” Europeans also express disbelief over forum findings that a strong majority of Americans believe God created life on earth and that seven out of ten Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs, he adds.
As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Mead puts it: “In parts of the Middle East, America is criticized for being kind of atheistic, a producer of dirty movies and a pop culture that is completely devoid of any religious restraint. But in other parts of the world, America is hated because it’s seen as the land of the fundamentalist idiot squad, a bunch of bigots who are going to destroy the world through their stupidity.” Offering clear, statistically supported information is an essential part of furthering understanding.
Many foreigners are also surprised to learn that religion in American public life is not confined to the Christian right or even to social conservatives, but that both parties have strong religious bases. Presenting the keynote speech at a conference sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany in 2005, Lugo explained that fact to an audience of journalists and political leaders.
“For example,” he told them, “in 2000, we had a candidate who openly said he was a born-again Christian...and who promised the country that, if elected president, he would ask himself this question before making any major decision: ‘What would Jesus do?’ And that was the Democratic guy, Al Gore.” Then Lugo told them about Gore’s vice presidential candidate, a practicing Jew—Orthodox, no less—who spoke freely about his faith.
Foreigners often struggle to understand why—with this relatively new, open religiousness among U.S. leaders—Americans continue to firmly support the separation of church and state. John Judis, a senior editor of The New Republic, met this question when speaking in Germany to an audience uneasy about the role of religion in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. As he related afterward, he told the Germans, “You have in your country a party called the Christian Democrats. Now, do you realize that if we had a party in the United States that was called that or was called the Christian Republicans, it would be a major scandal?”
In Europe, Judis reminded his audience, historical church-state relationships have allowed the survival of old religious names for parties that are now militantly secular and composed of people who often fear the zealotry of religion.
“In the U.S., it’s almost the opposite,” he continued. America’s original immigrants, though usually religious, were also opposed to governmentally established religion. That view lives on, in our discomfort with associating political parties closely with religion. “But at the same time,” he added, “religion has been intrinsic to our discourse, and it’s acceptable in a way that it is not in Europe.”
In fact, in the United States, “church” seems increasingly eager to speak its mind to “state,” and forum staff share with foreigners their findings that religious influence on U.S. foreign policy appears to have grown in the last 10 years. According to forum polling, white evangelical Protestants are increasingly active in supporting international religious freedom, actions against human trafficking, efforts to curb AIDS in Africa and the alleviation of poverty in the developing world. In some of these efforts, religious groups have effectively joined forces with liberal groups.
Black evangelicals have also become more involved in foreign policy, especially in supporting efforts against the HIV/AIDS pandemic sweeping sub-Saharan Africa.
Christian immigrant groups, too, have become more active. For example, Korean-American evangelicals played a key role in the U.S. Government’s enactment of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
Other ethnic groups have also taken an active role in foreign affairs. Muslim Americans have become highly critical of U.S. foreign and security policy toward the Islamic world. Hindu Americans have lobbied for stronger ties with India and have been somewhat successful in blunting U.S. criticism of Hindu nationalist policies—policies which many observers consider hostile to India’s religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians. Jewish groups have continued their support of Israel and also joined Indian Americans to strengthen the anti-terror alliance among India, Israel and the United States.
Extending the Reach
The forum’s primary goal of analyzing and providing timely information on such issues remains strong, and its reach is expanding. In fall 2005, a new partnership with America Abroad Media resulted in a one-hour public radio special on “Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy,” co-hosted by Ray Suarez, Marvin Kalb and others, which was heard on 90 U.S. public radio stations and in 145 countries.
To reach West Coast audiences, the forum affiliated with the Pacific Council on International Policy (a partner of the Council on Foreign Relations) and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.
Looking ahead, which emerging religious trends and movements are most likely to reshape global public life? Lugo names the rise of global Islam, especially outside traditional Muslim areas, and the growth of global Christianity in the developing world, particularly Pentecostalism. In Latin America, for example, Pentecostals make up 15 percent of the population in some countries, and its adherents have become increasingly involved in politics. In parts of Asia, the growth of Pentecostalism and evangelical and indigenous forms of Christianity has brought Christians into contact, and often into conflict, with Muslims and Hindus.
Lugo also points to the militant forms that some Muslim and Christian movements are taking in the weak states of sub-Saharan Africa. Religious confrontations in strategically important countries like Nigeria will continue to present a major challenge for global security well into the future.
Another way in which religion will influence global public life, Lugo adds, is through its influence on the foreign policy of the United States, the world’s most powerful country. If the last 10 years are any indication, religious influence on American foreign policy will only increase in the coming years.
Lugo concludes the list by identifying a distinguishing feature of globalization: burgeoning religious diasporas caused by mass migrations that are “like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” Some of these diasporas maintain a strong transnational religious identity that often trumps national identity.
For instance, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that many Muslims around the world think of themselves as Muslims first and citizens of their countries second. Such a trend will undoubtedly influence the direction of global politics and challenge nation-states in major new ways, Lugo says.
Following it all would challenge the most adept of elephant watchers. For the forum, he says, “the task is to gather the best information on these trends worldwide and share it with an increasingly wide audience of policy makers and opinion shapers.” The true measure of success will be the extent to which these audiences notice and take seriously the elephant in the room.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is located at 1615 L Street NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036. Its phone is 202.419.4550, and its Web site is http://pewforum.org.
Sue Rardin is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.