This post is the second of three companion pieces by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and Peter Danchin. These posts are the product of ongoing conversations between Sullivan, Hurd, Danchin, and Saba Mahmood. Watch for a forthcoming essay by Danchin.—ed.

My first thought upon reading the Chicago Council’s report “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy” is that the title is misleading. This report is not about engaging religious communities abroad—one hears little if at all from such communities—nor does it say anything particularly new. There is, however, an imperative. This report is an attempt to create a particular kind of world, one defined by the projection of American power—a certain kind of religious power.  The report, as Winni Sullivan observes in her companion piece, endorses an establishmentarian position in American foreign policy, meaning that American policy could discriminate among religions, and fund and promote religious activities that meet with U.S. government approval. This is a different kind of religious power than what Sullivan describes as the “periodic and not altogether successful efforts” at disestablishment that we have undertaken at home. Assuming that we agree with Sullivan, as I do, that “established religion is by definition not accepting of ‘pluralism, freedom, and democracy,’” it becomes clear that this report is not about engaging religious communities to promote either religious freedom or democracy. It is about the projection of American power through the securitization of religion. Perhaps a more apt title, borrowing in part from the language of the report itself, would have been “‘Savvy, selective, strategic, and targeted’: the projection of American religious power and the global securitization of religion.”

I want to point to a few moments at which the report works especially hard to achieve these objectives. The first is in its definition of “religious freedom,” understood as the right to, “advance values publicly in civil society and political life.”  Religious freedom is to be articulated “in a way not viewed as imperialism, but as a means to support religious agency to undermine religion-based terrorism and promote stable democracy.” Yet one of the great challenges of our time is to engage with and listen to those who enact religious agency and live religious freedom in ways that may not conform to these protestant-secular understandings of religion and religious freedom. In focusing exclusively on “values and beliefs,” the report not only fails to engage with, or allow spaces for, religious practice, habits, and ways of being in the world that cannot be reduced to values and beliefs, but actively closes down such “religious agencies,” save those that are deemed to be “undermining religion-based terrorism” in the eyes of the National Security Council (NSC). In tacitly sanctioning a protestant understanding of religion as the (only) legitimate way to be religious and modern, it forecloses upon a range of understandings of religion and arrogates to the NSC the authority to decide who is “civil” enough to be allowed into the public sphere, and who isn’t. As Saba Mahmood has observed of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) itself, the report illustrates, “how the exercise of sovereign power tends to subsume the secular principle of religious freedom.”

This rather astonishing exercise of sovereign theopolitical authority brings me to a second point involving the government regulation of religion. The report states: “We know that government regulation of religion can lead to increased persecution and religious violence, forces that increasingly escape confinement within national borders.” This is a striking statement. What is the Task Force calling for, if not increased government regulation through the securitization of religion? In recommending that the NSC direct, not only governmental, but also nongovernmental engagement with religious actors and communities overseas, it vests in the government the authority and institutional capacity to regulate religion both directly and through nongovernmental proxies, calling explicitly for “practical religious literacy” on the part of governmental and nongovernmental offices and institutions. Will this lead to increased persecution and religious violence?

It won’t, according to the logic of the report, because the secular state in general, and the United States in particular, is ontologically incapable of particular kinds of violence, “religious” violence, in particular. Violence undertaken by the American state is by definition not religious. So, religious violence is something undertaken by others, while secular violence disappears from the picture altogether, or is quietly subsumed and legitimized under the rubric of “marginalizing extremists.” Yet, is it not the case that, like the errant “religious actors” described in the report, the United States also, at some times and in some places, “inspire(s) or legitimate(s) violent conflict by framing it as an act of justice”?  How is it that the United States manages to exempt itself from the critical scrutiny that it so avidly prescribes for its (religious) others? Could it be the case that American exceptionalism and a particular notion of American religious freedom and American power are sacralized in this report, such that they are, in the words of the report, lending “a sacred aura and intensity to disputes and campaigns that also have significant secular dimensions”? As religion is increasingly nationalized through this heady cocktail of religious freedom and American exceptionalism, should we now brace ourselves for “calls to defend that which is held sacred […] increasingly employed as a conflict escalator”? Should we not at least consider the possibility that the United States, in its new role as self-appointed theologian, might “invoke the sacred to sow violence and confusion”?  It is in closing down the possibility of this kind of self-scrutiny that the report moves in dangerous directions.

In another example of the inherent goodness of American power, failed states, in the eyes of the Task Force, are responsible for terrorism, and never the international actions of the United States (such as in the invasion of Iraq) or other actors.  The United States floats above and outside the world, guided expertly by the NSC through the rocky shoals of political theology and toward safer shores, in a carefully navigated approach, “tailored so as not to overstep the bounds by intervening unwisely in theological disputes or, worse still, seeking to manipulate religion.”

I agree with the Task Force that the United States should not shy away from engaging the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although the project of “discerning which elements of the Muslim Brotherhood are interested in moving away from extremism” is not an approach I would advocate. Is this process of “discernment” constitutional? Or is it an attempt on the part of the American government to assume the mantle of the global theologian of reform, separating the wheat from the chaff—turning water to wine?—as it acts “ in a way that is both decisive and prudent, developing the means to assist those whose ideas it supports without tainting them by association”? Is this an appropriate role for the United States government? Is it the role of the government to determine “which elements” of which religious groups or parties abroad “are interested in moving away from extremism”?  Or might we see this as part of what Mahmood has described as an “ambitious theological campaign” undertaken by the U.S. government in which, “secularism reveals itself in its civilizing and disciplinary aspects, rather than as a circumscription of religion or a prophylaxis that immunizes politics from religion within the context of the nation-state”?

I also agree with the report’s recommendation, in the section on international organizations, that “the United States also stands to learn from the experience of international organizations and their interactions with faith-based institutions in numerous fields.” The United States stands to learn from the experience of these, and many, many other actors—both “faith-based” and not.  We stand to learn from doing more listening and less promoting of “the message,”  not to mention “spearheading a new reformation,” in Sullivan’s words. The real challenge, understanding and engaging multiple modalities of being “religious” and being “free” in a globalizing world, still lies ahead.