Commentary: Religion in Foreign Policy

Problems usually arise when a country applies religion to its foreign policy. United States foreign policy should always be secular. At the same time, we should learn about the religious and cultural beliefs of people in countries where we are engaged, so we can communicate effectively and determine rational strategies to accomplish our mission.

It’s helpful to look at what hasn’t worked and not repeat it. This includes, but is not limited to, making assumptions like the following:

  1. God is on our side, which means Satan is on the other side. This turns the engagement into a binary and simplistic battle between good and evil, with no room for compromise or negotiation.
  2. American exceptionalism makes us a role model for the world, and we can judge other countries and cultures on the extent to which they adopt our values.
  3. All religions are good, and adherents who act in a manner we dislike are acting contrary to their religious doctrines.
  4. Government officials may proselytize here and elsewhere, favor one religion over another, or religion in general over non-religion.
  5. If we satisfy powerful religious leaders or factions, then we may ignore human rights.
  6. We must either go it alone or take the lead when we act in coalition with other countries.
  7. We can occupy a country indefinitely.
  8. Perceived economic benefit is sufficient justification for foreign engagement.
  9. We should do more talking than listening.
  10. There will be no unintended consequences.

Here’s what we should do (with credit to Rabbi Hillel, who summed up the Jewish religion around 30 BCE): “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” How’s that for a reasonable foreign policy idea? Practice a version of the Golden Rule, a core value of both religious and secular people. This would rule out almost all war, as well as occupation, domination, and exploitation. It would rule in cooperation, assistance, and leadership by good example. We’ve done this pretty well at times, and not so well at others.

A prime is a number whose only divisors are 1 and itself. The complete history of even primes is very short: the number 2. An argument can be made that the number of even primes is all that is needed for the complete history of “just” wars: World War 2.

It’s easier to count the number of just holy wars: 0. The holiest of holy wars in Western “Civilization” was the Crusades, typified by the Cathar Wars. Abbot Arnaud Amaury, legate for the ironically named Pope Innocent III, was a military adviser during the Crusades. His troops succeeded in carrying out the Abbott’s 1209 battle orders, “Kill them all. God will know His own.” Amaury was rewarded in 1212 for his holy war service with an appointment to archbishop.

No country goes to war thinking its cause is unjust. While wars are viewed as “just” going in, the story is often different going out. We can’t bring back the lives of those who died in unjust wars. Any criteria for a “just war” will always have close calls. I would rather err on the side of it not being “just” enough to enter.

We started a war in Iraq after President George W. Bush consulted a “higher” father, rather than his “lower” father and former president who likely would have advised against it. Some government officials interpret freedom of religion as the right to promote and proselytize Christianity at home and abroad. This could be why other cultures might rightly view us as imperialists.

People who choose to die in the name of their gods are free to do so, but they have no right to take innocent victims. They may believe that “the one true god” is on their side, while the other side is infidels in a black and white world with no shades of gray. They may argue that this life is a dress rehearsal for an imagined afterlife, with extra eternal benefits earned for killing and being killed in the name of their god. A fictional character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov implies that “Without God, all things are possible.” Unfortunately, many real characters show that “With God, all violent things are possible.”

Shortly after moving to South Carolina in 1976, I saw the silent movie classic, Birth of a Nation. I was appalled by this horribly racist film, made in 1915, that portrays Ku Klux Klan members as heroes. But then, as the Civil War was coming to an end in Griffith’s film, the camera panned a field of endless graves, with a moving caption: “War’s Peace.” We’ve seen “war’s peace” too many times.

A peace negotiation usually requires compromise, but religious fundamentalists tend to espouse an uncompromising and absolute worldview. Territorial disputes could be practical problems to solve, but not when opponents believe their god is in the real estate business and promised the same piece of land to different religions. We must recognize the role religion plays in many conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Peace-loving people must work to marginalize those whose religious beliefs lead them to kill innocent human beings over land claims or anything else.

I won’t presume to give “proper” interpretations of so-called holy books, since passages can be found to justify either A or not A for almost any action. But I wish religious leaders would focus on interpretations that give peace a chance. Maybe loving instead of arming against your neighbor would be a good start.

Recently, I walked through a lovely park near Charleston, South Carolina. My moment of peaceful bliss abruptly ended when I saw yet another prominent War Memorial. Our country formed a War Department in 1789, which euphemistically morphed into a Department of Defense in 1947. Perhaps now it’s time to form a Department of Peace that would move war memorials to cemeteries and place Peace Memorials in local parks.

People who put deeds above creeds and compassion above dogma, regardless of whether they are religious or non-religious, are our allies against those who put the needs of an imagined god above the needs of humans. This should be a cornerstone of our country’s foreign policy.