The Washington Post runs an article today reporting on a study out of the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs which finds that the US government does not sufficiently address global religious issues. This is an idea that several commenters have made to me, in comments as well as e-mail. I’ll let you read the article—and perhaps some of the approaching-200 comments:
American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and “uncompromising Western secularism” that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The council’s 32-member task force, which included former government officials and scholars representing all major faiths, delivered its report to the White House on Tuesday. The report warns of a serious “capabilities gap” and recommends that President Obama make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”
Thomas Wright, the council’s executive director of studies, said task force members met Tuesday with Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and State Department officials. “They were very receptive, and they said that there is a lot of overlap between the task force’s report and the work they have been doing on this same issue,” Wright said.
The US government, more than any other national government I can think of, is singularly unsuited to using religion or even addressing religion as a matter of policy. This is because the US specifically separate church and state and prohibits the government from addressing religious issues in any but tangential form. The government cannot show any support for any particular religion—or religion as a whole. Nor can it disfavor any religion or religion as a whole. This leaves it speechless when it comes to matters of religion.
What the government can address is actions that result from religious behavior. It can, for instance, forbid polygamy (within the US) because of the negative social factors it believe result from it. It can prohibit and punish physical attacks against members of a religion, but it cannot forbid verbal attacks against a religion, any religion.
In foreign affairs, the US government cannot condemn a religion or the followers of a religion; it can, and does, condemn actions taken by certain members of a religion. It can, and does, condemn the rhetorical use of ‘religion’ to justify terrorism. It can, and also does, applaud actions taken by members of religions that promote moderation and human rights, including those members’ speech. It can also point to examples of different manifestations of a religion that may differ from country to country or group to group. An example of this might be an exhibit showing the variety of architecture used in American mosques.
What it cannot do is to demand or even instruct followers of a religion on what their religion ‘truly means’. The US government simply has no constitutional role in defining a religion’s meaning.
Today’s conflicts that revolve around religion, I believe, are all based in differing meanings of what a particular religion means, what it requires of its followers. This is something that the US government should avoid, firstly because, as a secular government, it has no standing to make remarks and secondly because its pronouncements would be greeted with disdain anyway.