During his landmark address to the world, delivered in Cairo last June, President Obama proposed to open a new era of engagement with “Muslim communities”—engagement, that is, not just with Muslim states or regimes, but also with other economically and politically influential social sectors, including religious groups, educational institutions, civic organizations, health care institutions, and youth affiliations.

In the hopes of accelerating the process of rethinking America’s attitude toward the Muslim word, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has issued a Task Force Report (TFR), entitled “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” As co-chair of the task force (with Richard Cizik), which has been convening since the fall of 2008, I welcomed the president’s shrewd remarks about Islam, and I was pleased to work with the dozens of leaders in business, higher education, government, and media who signed the report, which was released today. Our hope is to build on the president’s ideas and explain why they apply not only to Islamic communities, but to religious communities more generally.

Three aspects of the approach sketched by Obama in Cairo are new, or at least newly placed front-and-center in American foreign policy. First is the administration’s willingness to see Islam (and, by extension, all transnational, globalizing religions) as a no-longer-ignorable “player of impact,” for both good and ill, in setting national and international agendas, ranging from the provision of health care to economic development and environmental sustainability to women’s rights, conflict resolution, and democratization. Second is the “for good” part of that formula. Even before 9/11, the agency of religious actors abroad has been perceived and framed primarily in terms of counterterrorism policy: how do we defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban? But this is just one part of the security and prosperity puzzle. The enormous constructive—or potentially constructive—roles of religious actors beyond our shores, while never formally denied by past administrations, have rarely been viewed as an asset to be developed. Oddly, for a religious nation such as ours, believers elsewhere have been seen as adversaries or obstacles, and not as partners.

How to build on this new awareness of religion? The TFR outlines the major elements of a comprehensive policy of constructive engagement with religions and religious actors abroad, indicating whom to engage, how to help them succeed, what vocabulary to use, and what the limits of such engagement are. The goal is to build partnerships and networks designed to advance shared interests and objectives, which may include the effective deployment of foreign assistance, the development of stable democracies, and the promotion of human rights.

President Obama’s third “new idea” regarding religious engagement—one that should be welcomed by both parties—is to allow nongovernmental agencies and private institutions to carry much of the responsibility. The TFR spells out a series of network- and partnership-building initiatives to be undertaken abroad by American universities, businesses, and private relief and development organizations.

Government still has a pivotal initiating and coordinating role, however, and the report calls for the National Security Council (NSC) to define the strategic parameters of engagement and to oversee their implementation. Specifically, to mention but one of the report’s several recommendations, the NSC should supervise the establishment of programs in practical religious literacy, not merely at the Departments of State and Defense, but in other governmental departments such as Homeland Security, Energy, Education, and Health and Human Services as well. As part of an education and information overhaul, the NSC should also create or reform existing international exchange programs to include and emphasize interaction with foreign religious leaders and organizations, as well as structure dialogues between religious leaders from the United States, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The TFR also calls for specific actions by President Obama in the short term. Perhaps most importantly, because other elements of a new policy depend on it, the president should clarify that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not bar the United States from engaging religious communities abroad in the conduct of foreign policy. He should underscore that clarification by requiring a focused and definitive discussion of the constitutionally acceptable means for pursuing this engagement. This is a key part of the equation because the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is currently complicated by questions surrounding the relevance and applicability of the Establishment Clause. Often, government officials have been wary of engaging foreign religions, or have done so tentatively and clandestinely, owing to the (misplaced) anxiety that such engagement is generally forbidden. This is not so, and this fact needs to be clarified, highlighted, and publicized broadly.

And so we come to another critically important, and politically sensitive, issue faced by the task force. The Obama administration has yet to fill the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and, equally important, to elevate the position, as intended by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), to a status commensurate with other ambassadors-at-large based at the State Department.

While the members of the task force share a commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right—one enshrined not only in the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also, with various degrees of impact on actual policy, in the constitutions of dozens of nations around the world—there was disagreement among us, cordial but occasionally sharp, about the relative weight to be given in the TFR to direct advocacy of the right by the federal government.

Those who were most uncomfortable with making religious freedom the headline tended to imagine the term in ironic scare quotes. “Religious freedom” is perceived by many peoples around the world, not least Muslims of the Middle East, they argued, not as a universal human right, but as a superpower-charged means of advancing hegemonic U.S. (read: Christian or, worse from their perspective, Judeo-Christian) interests. This particular strain of anti-Americanism is inflamed by isolated episodes of Christian missionaries proselytizing defiantly (or clumsily) in settings where they were manifestly unwelcome, and thereby igniting riots and sometimes deadly violence. More broadly, some suspect that missionaries, preachers, or U.S. government agents (sometimes conflated in the anti-American imagination) seek to impose on vulnerable populations “The American Way of Religion”—i.e., voluntarism, church-state separation, a free marketplace of religious ideas—which foreign opponents of U.S. influence believe to be anything but a universal human good.

In response to the concerns of their colleagues who feared that an exclusive, or even central, focus on religious freedom, might delegitimate the report , its most ardent champions on the task force pointed to polling data indicating that a sizable majority of people in these regions yearn for religious freedom (and not merely “freedom of worship”). Moreover, the IRFA enthusiasts rejected the anti-American “propaganda” that claims that the United States seeks to protect only religious minorities—Christians in Saudi Arabia, for example. (The TFR thus underscores the fact that religious majorities as well as minorities would be protected from government repression by the vigorous observance and enforcement of religious freedom.) The best way to counter religious extremists and eventually undermine authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes, the pro-IRFA side of the argument contended, is to foster a religiously plural public square marked by the give-and-take of free, open, and civil debate.

Through reasoned debate in an open public square, the Chicago Council task force members on both sides of this divide were able to identify and embrace common ground. Thus, the TFR calls for the appointment of a new ambassador-at-large with detailed knowledge of the challenges facing both majority and minority religious groups around the world—a person, further, who possesses the communications skills necessary to explain that “religious freedom” is not a hollow shell masking U.S. religious or economic ambitions, but a universal human right that applies to every religion, whether it be a majority or a minority in any given state. The oppression, persecution, or restriction of religious groups by their respective governments, the ambassador should proclaim, is an enormous impediment to the development of religious pluralism and participatory democracy everywhere. Ensuring a public square in which all religions may compete peacefully and lawfully for a hearing and influence is one way of tempering religious groups driven to extremism by exclusion and persecution, and of undercutting those religious cells that exploit state repression by recruiting young, disaffected believers to their ranks.

It is my hope that this clarified understanding of religious freedom will serve as common ground for everyone who seeks to engage and empower religious communities acting in a spirit of tolerance and constructive change.