Religion and foreign policy

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs yesterday issued a report urging President Obama to make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.” The task force was led by R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame University and Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

The report does not urge, of course, that U.S. foreign policy promote, or censure, any religious tradition, or play favorites. Nor does it suggest any union of church and state.

Rather, it says that our diplomats need to understand religion around the globe at a much deeper level, and engage with religious actors when it makes sense. They point to a woeful lack of knowledge of religious movements and traditions in the Foreign Service in “a world abuzz with religious fervor.” This echoes the message articulated a couple years ago by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty.

Certainly, the Obama Administration is much better at integrating religion into foreign policy than the Bush Administration. Witness Obama’s historic address to the Muslim world. But Obama’s own awareness of the importance of religion needs to seep down into the foreign policy bureaucracy.

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The report recommends that religion be added to the training of foreign service officers, and that government agencies be empowered to engage religious communities in the promotion of peace and human rights. It also calls for a clarification of the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.

For me, this comes on top of an interview I did yesterday with the renowned scholar of interfaith relations, Karen Armstrong. Her new Charter for Compassion (which identifies compassion as the core moral value of all faith traditions) and her personal engagement on that issue with people of faith in the Middle East, Europe and Africa -– as well as the United States -– is an excellent example of citizen diplomacy that draws on the best religion has to offer. (cf. www.charterforcompassion.org)

She understands the best of what religious traditions offer. The State Department could learn a lot from Karen Armstrong.


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