Should the U.S. government employ American civil society to engage religious communities overseas in promotion of a “religious freedom agenda”? Scott Appleby, the Chicago Council’s Task Force Report (TFR), and the Obama administration think so. But there are serious problems with NGOs playing this role, either as an express supplement to, or possibly a covert screen for, U.S. foreign policy.

First, it is worth emphasizing a point that might be lost in proposing such a “new” approach: civil society has autonomously done this for centuries. Beyond missionary groups’ traditional activities, both religious and secular NGOs have long engaged with overseas communities on political issues related to religion. Witness generations-old activism over foot-binding in China, female genital cutting in Kenya, and freedom of belief around the world.

What may be different today is that Appleby, the Chicago Council, and the Obama administration seem keen to make civil society a more explicit part of U.S. foreign policy in its dealings with religious communities. But this very effort seems destined to alienate overseas populations already rightly suspicious of U.S. government meddling. This is particularly true if the effort is directed, overtly or otherwise, by the National Security Council. The securitization of religion—like that of other supposed “threats” to national security, from ethnic conflict and hot zone diseases in the 1990s to terrorism and global warming today—may warm the hearts of military brass craving new budget lines and NGO leaders pining for recession-proof funding streams. But, in Appleby’s tellingly Pentagon-like formulation, viewing foreign religious actors as “asset[s] to be developed,” is unnecessary and counterproductive. Indeed, if the U.S. uses such an “indirect,” security-based approach, it will undermine the goal of “authentic engagement” with overseas communities, which the TFR rightly recognizes as critical to promoting the idea of religious freedom. At a minimum, the appearance of inauthenticity will loom over—and potentially poison—valuable interactions that already occur spontaneously.

Scholars of religion recognize a parallel dynamic when it comes to government involvement in religion at home. Many believe that one reason for declining religious observance in northern Europe is the presence of state-sponsored or privileged churches, with a concomitant reduction in competition among religious organizations. Yet, the TFR seems to be suggesting a greater government role in promoting, or at least engaging, overseas denominations, albeit through NGOs. Even if we believe that America’s “neutral” approach to church-state relations is optimal, due to our Constitutional balance of free exercise and non-establishment, other countries often do not see it this way. Nor are the many ways in which democracies deal with religious diversity necessarily inferior to our own—as the lengthy and generally successful experience of European democracies attests. Government-sponsored promotion of “religious freedom,” particularly by the U.S. government—whether overtly or covertly—seems likely to fail for reasons similar to those which its proponents believe doom government sponsorship of religion in domestic settings.

Beyond this strategic problem, the report suggests that religious freedom should be supported through networks and partnerships anchored by “American universities, businesses, and private relief and development organizations.” These privileged interlocutors seem to have been chosen for their supposedly apolitical character and consequent potential to uphold a consensus U.S. view on religious freedom. Even if these assumptions are true—a doubtful proposition—a host of other civic groups engage in overseas activism on religion-related issues. Today, even avowedly secular advocacy groups and lobbies often touch on religious issues or engage with believers (and nonbelievers) abroad. Many of these “political” groups also have close linkages to the report’s “apolitical” favorites.

Critically, for those who dream of a coherent U.S. approach to religious freedom, civil society groups constantly conflict with one another on these issues. This is true even within the narrow range of religiously based groups—as shown by longstanding differences between liberal religious organizations like the World Council of Churches and conservative ones like the World Congress of Families. TFR members themselves were riven on the meaning of religious freedom, and as to whether the U.S. should advance it abroad. Moreover, although most Americans undoubtedly agree on a broad, bedrock conception of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, there is also sharp and continuing disagreement over their application in any number of specific cases.

Such conflict is all the more pervasive if the full range of civil society organizations, both religious and not, is considered. For instance, many in what is often termed the “human rights movement” clash with religious conservatives (who increasingly call themselves human rights groups too) over issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, abortion, and definitions of the family. The clashes are deep-seated and bitter, with antagonists fighting, not just over policy outcomes, but also over who may participate in the debate—as well as the probity of evidence, the content of morality, and the integrity of foes.

Nor are such harsh disputes confined to religiously charged “culture clash” issues; they spill into debate over many others, as well. For example, a major debate about the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court pitted feminists against conservative religious groups over the framing of “forced pregnancy” as a war crime. An important aspect of the genetically modified foods controversy—especially for Catholic groups, but also for environmentalists—concerns threats to the “integrity of creation.” And debates over AIDS and other disease prevention issues, as well as over development policy more broadly, involve religiously oriented and nonreligious NGOs who differ over such fundamental matters as the scope of the problems and the best means of dealing with them. In short, our own third sector, on which Appleby and the TFR lavish such hopes of advancing a religious freedom agenda, is itself deeply divided by competing and conflicting worldviews.

Making it all the harder for the U.S. government to use civil society to spread such an agenda is the fact that many civil society groups already conduct their own “foreign policy.” Notwithstanding Appleby’s claim that, “for a religious nation such as ours, believers elsewhere have been seen as adversaries or obstacles, and not as partners,” close interactions have in fact been common. Numerous NGOs, whether religious or not, have supported or fostered overseas clients for decades. This is perhaps most striking among groups that believe their interests are not represented by American institutions or the U.S. government. The affiliation of traditionalist American Anglicans with like-minded African churches due to divisions over gays in the priesthood is a well-known recent example. Similarly, in 2000 a network of conservative women from the U.S., Canada and northern Europe approached African delegates at the Beijing +5 PrepCom: “‘Our own delegations . . . are promoting an agenda which is not true to our family and cultural traditions—in fact, radical women have been sent here in spite of our pleas to have a more balanced team of delegates. We look to nations such as yours to speak for us, to save us from the folly of our own governments!’”

Finally, conservative Christian groups active at the UN have forged a resilient “Baptist-burqa” coalition with delegations from Islamic states, successfully working together on various “family” issues. Nor is the coalition strictly instrumental. It is based on mutual respect, even admiration. As Austin Ruse, head of the Catholic & Family Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) has written, it is from the “potent alliance between Catholic and Muslim countries, . . . new in the world, new to history,” what “[o]ur enemies call . . . an un-holy alliance, . . . that our victory will come.”

Although the foregoing examples involve “conservative” groups, “liberal” ones create parallel alliances—and the rival networks duel with one another across state borders and within international institutions. Moreover, they often bring the results of these conflicts, both successes and failures, back into domestic political disputes. In recent months, for instance, American gay groups have not only opposed Uganda’s draconian “Anti Homosexuality Bill,” but have also bludgeoned the Christian Right at home over ties between the bill’s proponents and California’s Abiding Truth Ministries. For their part, conservative Christians follow similar tactics. Earlier in the decade, for instance, they transformed Sweden’s Pentecostal minister Ake Green into a global cause célèbre among religious traditionalists. A local court had convicted and sentenced Green to one month’s imprisonment on “hate speech” charges after he gave a Bible belting anti-gay sermon in 2004. But conservative Christian lawyers based in Scottsdale, Arizona played a key role in his successful appeal to Sweden’s Supreme Court, in the process turning him into a poster child for threats to religious freedom allegedly posed by gay rights and hate crimes legislation. Green’s makeover was topped by a cameo appearance in California’s Proposition 8 fight—a “religious dissident” tour during which he exhorted Californians to defend the family.

In short, the full panoply of American civil society at home and abroad is conflicted about religious freedom and its particular applications. Our civil society’s cacophonous and combative members have long exploited similar fault-lines in other societies—or reproduced conflicts through overseas alliances. To believe that the Obama administration, or any other, can somehow unify American NGOs—even around the abstract and seemingly anodyne concept of “religious freedom”—is unrealistic, More likely, this administration, whatever its now increasingly plaintive claims to transcend political differences, will, like others before it, work primarily with a set of favored civic groups to promote its own set of views.

As but one example with a clear religious linkage, consider the “Mexico City Policy”—which changes, and likely will continue to change, each time a different political party assumes the presidency. Within days of taking office, President Obama rescinded the Bush administration’s version of the policy, opening the door for NGOs receiving federal funds to again mention abortion in their overseas family planning activities. Of course, the President simultaneously pledged to open a “fresh conversation” to “end the politicization of this issue” by finding “areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families.” But the Vatican and other religious conservatives immediately condemned the rescission.

The TFR pays too little attention to such conflicts. At a minimum, U.S. policymakers must be aware of what American civil society is already fighting for and about overseas—not to use NGOs to do the government’s work, but to strategize with their presence and activism in mind. In addition, policymakers need to understand how the politicization of American civil society might affect “target” communities. In one way, such conflict holds real benefits for the U.S. The battles illustrate one of the unheralded strengths of America (and other democracies)—indeed, one frequently bemoaned by those who long for an end to wrangling and who believe, wrongly, that contemporary America is more discordant than ever: our capacity to include sharp and continuing conflict within a peaceful and democratic society.

But it is unlikely that “selling conflict” or promoting a broad ideological spectrum of civil society groups will be American policymakers’ top goal. More likely, the current and future administrations will favor their own partisans, perhaps under the guise of a “unified” American position—even as these claims are challenged by “rogue” NGOs. For this reason, it is doubtful that President Obama’s openness to deploying civil society will in fact be “welcomed by both parties,” as Appleby speculates.

Does all this mean that American civil society should not engage with religious groups overseas? Of course not. NGOs of myriad ideological stripes will and should continue to do so. In the process, they will promote their own conflicting views of “religious freedom” and its applications to concrete issues. But involving the U.S. government as more than listener and learner would be a mistake, undermining a chief virtue of civil society—the reality and perception that it is autonomous from the state, with the credibility, critical edge, and freedom that entails.