Is U.S. Foreign Policy Suffering from a “God Gap?”

February 26, 2010

A two year study conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has concluded that a narrow and ill-informed brand of “Western secularism” that “feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures, and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights” has handicapped American foreign policy for years. The Chicago Council's task force was led by R. Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame and Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. "Religion," the task force says, "is pivotal to the fate" of such nations as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen, all vital to U.S. national and global security.” Because of this, the task force believes that, “the U.S. government has been slow to respond effectively to situations where religion plays a global role.” They go on to cite regions where religion is on the rise as areas where improvement is needed, such as the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America, evangelical Christianity in Africa, and religious minorities in the Far East.

Notably, the Obama administration has been far more active in reaching out to various religious groups and key individuals around the world than previous administrations. President Obama has appointed a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and created a new position in the State Department specifically organized around outreach to Muslim nations and communities within nations.

However, it is not actually clear how much U.S. foreign policy suffers from this “Western secularism.” Clearly, the United States is by no means the most secular nation in the world with regard to its foreign policy—a distinction probably belongs to the People’s Republic of China with its completely secular government. Additionally, most western European nations and the Russian Federation also adopt irreligious positions in their foreign policy, and other than Russia bringing back memories of the Cold War every so often, when was the last time we had any problems with any of these nations? If it is the case that secularism is dangerous in foreign policy, as the Chicago Council asserts in their report, why do so many nations take a secular or religiously neutral stance in their approach to foreign policy?

That said, one of the key recommendations of the panel does strike a note of common sense. It is a profoundly good idea to ensure that officials actively engaged in foreign policy receive extensive information regarding religions as well as sensitivity training to ensure that they do not insult officials from other nations through ignorance about their religious views and beliefs. (For example, it would not be good for foreign relations if a United States diplomatic team served steak at a reception for delegates from India). To their credit, the Chicago Council has recommended just that sort of training in their report. However, in their remaining recommendations asserting that the United States should begin to unravel the principles of church-state separation in order to facilitate better foreign policy outcomes, the panel ignores much of what religious involvement has already “accomplished.”

First, there are the sexual education programs in Africa that are based on abstinence education through the use of the Bible that have done nothing to stem the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Then there are the rifle sights provided to United States soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that contain Biblical verses which only further stoke the rhetoric that we are engaged in a “crusade” against predominantly Muslim nations. Finally, there are the results of lectures to officials in Uganda by members of the Religious Right regarding the “immorality” of homosexuality that have led to a proposal that calls for the execution of gays and imprisonment of those who promote homosexuality. Yet after all of this experience with the effects of religious involvement with other nations, the authors of the report still believe that religion is ‘integral’ to American foreign policy.

Read the Washington Post coverage here .

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