Since the release last week of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ detailed and lengthy report (pdf) on the state of US engagement with religious communities at large, and its religious freedom agenda more broadly, there has been a sharp increase in attention to the role of religion in US foreign policy. The report itself argues that, because of the officially secular nature of US foreign relations, the government has failed to make connections with many countries in which the boundary between religion and affairs of state does not exist as such:
Religion has been rapidly increasing as a factor in world affairs, for good and for ill, for the past two decades. Yet the U.S. government still tends to view it primarily through the lens of counterterrorism policy. The success of American diplomacy in the next decade will not simply be measured by government-to-government contacts, but also by its ability to connect with the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world whose identity is defined by religion. Religious communities are central players in the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, development assistance, the promotion of human rights, stewardship of the environment, and the pursuit of peace in troubled parts of the world, but the United States lacks the capacity and framework to engage them.
Indeed, the report has led some to question whether church-state separation has led to a significant blind spot in US foreign policy. This opinion is seconded by Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, who, in an article for Newsweek/WaPo‘s On Faith, lauds the general thrust of the Chicago Council report, while nevertheless criticizing it on a number of specific points:
Despite these much needed contributions, the report nevertheless risks self-compartmentalization. Ironically, after providing a comprehensive discussion of religion and religious freedom, it does not place that discussion amidst a comprehensive understanding of our global context, let alone the role and responsibilities of the U.S. therein, American grand strategy, or the current organizational structures used to implement U.S. foreign and national security policy. For example, the brief discussion of the global context does not reflect the fundamental fact that no state or non-state actor can solve the complex challenges our world faces. If this is true, then it is not a question of if the U.S. partners with other governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but when and how.
Seiple’s analysis is thoroughgoing and well worth reading in full.
Also under fire of late has been the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, established under the Clinton administration. As The Washington Post has reported, allegations of religious discrimination have been leveled against the Commission by several Muslim ex-employees:
Some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom say the agency charged with advising the president and Congress is rife, behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism, with commissioners focusing on pet projects that are often based on their own religious background. In particular, they say an anti-Muslim bias runs through the commission’s work– a charge denied by its chairman, Leonard Leo.
“I don’t know of any other organization who defends as many Muslims in the world as we do,” said Leo, who was appointed to the commission by President George W. Bush in 2007.
If you would like to take part in this ongoing discussion, Thomas F. Farr, former director of the State Department’s office of International Religious Freedom, will be giving a talk entitled “The Widow’s Torment: International Religious Freedom and American Foreign Policy” at Princeton University on March 4. The talk is open to the public and further information is available here.
Of course, The Immanent Frame is also hosting an ongoing discussion of international religious freedoms and American foreign policy, which began with an essay by Scott Appleby, co-chair of the Chicago Council’s Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy, followed by a critical response from legal scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im.