Foreign Policy + Religion = Recipe for Disaster

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently recommended in an 85-page report that the U.S. government develop a strategy to make religion “integral” to American foreign policy. Here’s the good news in the report. It recommends that Foreign Service officers learn more about the religious and cultural beliefs of people in other countries, so we can more effectively communicate with them. This is a no-brainer. Religious and cultural literacy should be a prerequisite for all diplomats. Many conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world make no sense apart from recognition of the role that religion plays in them. If we are to have any hope for a solution, we need to understand better the problem.

Now here’s the bad news in the report. It claims that American foreign policy’s uncompromising Western secularism fuels religious extremism throughout the world, and recommends that we remove obstacles to constructive engagement with religious groups overseas. What does this mean? Unfortunately, the report is ambiguous about the importance of religious freedom and human rights, and would seem to open the door for U.S. officials to make our precious First Amendment secondary when we try to ingratiate ourselves with religious leaders abroad. Such oversights could have disastrous outcomes. We have enough problems at home with government officials chipping at the fragile wall that separates church and state. We don’t need to export those troubles to our work abroad.

The idea that our country is too secular in its foreign policy seems like some kind of tragic joke. 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. (I’m not sure if Bush’s reference to the Iraq War as a “crusade” was a sign of cultural illiteracy or a core belief of his.) And the First Amendment is slippery enough for some government officials, who interpret freedom of religion as the right to promote and proselytize for Christianity. This so-called brand of “Western secularism” could very well be why other cultures might rightly view us as imperialists.

Here are our dilemmas. We should not act as cultural imperialists, but we must not condone horrendous human rights violations perpetrated by religious leaders, either. We can’t ignore religion when dealing with world conflicts (since that’s often the cause); however, making religion an “integral” part of foreign policy is fraught with danger and difficulties. Thus, as far as the relationship between religion and foreign policy goes, it’s easier to see what we shouldn’t do than what we should do. (For a list of ten “don’ts” when it comes to foreign policy and religion, see my answer to a recent question posed to the panelists of the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog.)

However, when it comes to our engagement overseas, it makes sense to follow many of the policies that have worked well for us at home. We try to avoid entanglements between government and religious agencies here in the States, and so it stands to reason that such entanglements likely would be even more problematic abroad.


Herb Silverman serves on the American Humanist Association Board of Directors and is founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America.