U.S. can benefit by understanding religion’s role worldwide, report says

WASHINGTON – If the United States is to engage the world in a more effective and meaningful way, it must broaden its view of the role of religion in other countries beyond terrorism and counterterrorism strategies, a new report concluded.

Released Feb. 23 by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, the report offers U.S. diplomats and policymakers a framework to better respond to the growing influence or religion in the affairs of the world’s governments, said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a co-chairman of a task force that wrote the report.

“What we’re calling for is a more consistent, integrated approach that is tailored, not going beyond the bounds of what’s necessary,” Appleby said at press briefing at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

“You would you think in a way, isn’t this happening already, but for complicated and historical reasons, the answer has been no,” he said.

The report, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” recommends that throughout the U.S. government it’s time to “understand and respond to religiously inspired actors and events in a way that supports those doing good, while isolating those that invoke the sacred to sow violence and confusion.”

Appleby said the report calls for a new approach to foreign affairs that expands engagement with religious players around the world beyond the traditional government sectors of the State Department and the military and intelligence communities.

“There’s been a real reluctance for people in our government to engage religion and yet under the radar, unofficially, it’s become so apparent to people in government who are working on health care, on development, conflict resolution, that if you don’t engage religious actors you’re left behind,” he said. “Opportunities for resolving conflict and building peace may be lost.”

Task force co-chairman Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said that understanding the role of religion in societies around the world will lead to broader development for all people.

Appleby told Catholic News Service that he, Cizik and others involved in preparing the report were scheduled to discuss its findings Feb. 23 with Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“We have a sense of urgency about this question because the world has brought this to our door,” Appleby said.

More than a year in development, the report was prepared by a 32-member task force convened by the Chicago council. Members included religious leaders, academicians, policymakers, constitutional lawyers and members of the media.

Redefining foreign policy will require developing “detailed knowledge of religious communities, leaders and trends while moving beyond traditional state-to-state relations,” the report said.

The task force recommended a series of actions for U.S. government to take as it expands its consideration of the role of religion in its work overseas.

The report called for mandatory training on the role of religion in world affairs for U.S. government and diplomatic officials. It also recommended tapping into the expertise and skills of military veterans and civilians returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The task force suggested that the president clarify that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit American officials from working with religious communities abroad in the conduct of foreign policy even though there are constraints on the means those officials may choose to do so.

In the process of engaging religious communities abroad, the task force urged that the U.S. work more closely with schools, hospitals, social services, relief and development and human rights programs sponsored by religious organizations.

“While these activities may appear to be nonpolitical, in the aggregate they have a powerful influence over peoples’ lives and loyalties,” the report said. “By engaging with institutions providing these services and assisting them in their endeavors, the United States can help build good will in religious communities and connect directly with ordinary citizens rather than just engaging with regimes.”

In addition, the report recommended that America engage religious political parties even if they oppose U.S. foreign policy. It also recommended that the U.S. reaffirm its commitment to religious freedom and clarify what it means.

Other recommendations focused on embracing the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide in a way that would lessen anti-American attitudes among religious parties and working with multilateral organizations such as the United Nations to expand and deepen their involvement with religious actors.

“Without a more serious and thoughtful engagement with religion across a host of issues and actors, U.S. foreign policy will miss important opportunities,” the report concluded. “America’s long history of influencing the international understanding of democracy and human rights will be compromised.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.