Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mind the God Gap

America has been portrayed as a nation of Bible-thumping teetotalers sandwiched between two coastal slices of godless hedonism, but the truth is obviously much more complex than that. Nonetheless, a new study shows that a spirit of "uncompromising Western secularism" is hampering U.S. foreign policy efforts abroad. David Waters reports on the issue in today's Washington Post:

American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and "uncompromising Western secularism" that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs... "[The 'God gap' is] a hot topic," said Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement in Arlington County and a Council on Foreign Relations member. "It's the elephant in the room. You're taught not to talk about religion and politics, but the bummer is that it's at the nexus of national security. The truth is the academy has been run by secular fundamentalists for a long time, people who believe religion is not a legitimate component of realpolitik."

In other words, U.S. foreign policy is developed and carried out without adequate attention to the religious cultures that influence the values and actions of many people in the world, for whom customs are often more powerful than laws.

The Chicago report recommends (among other actions) addressing and clarifying the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. But this is easier said than done. At the heart of the issue are some persistent and complex issues about faith:
  • Is faith a private matter, or something to be proclaimed from the mountaintops?
  • How does one adhere to one's own faith while respecting the beliefs of others?
  • While religious beliefs are likely to unite those of common faith, does it not risk isolating others?
  • And what exactly is the role of faith or religion in American politics -- at home and abroad?
There are many in the "render unto Caesar" crowd who might argue that faith is faith and politics politics, and never the twain shall meet. As a fan of the separation of church and faith, I'll confess I feel more than a little reluctance toward using faith as a political tool. But closing the God gap doesn't have to mean manipulating faith for political ends. Past efforts to address the problem (as the article notes) include passing the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 and increasing outreach to religious groups in other nations--moves that suggest openness, religious tolerance and a "God loves the equitable" spirit.

Meeting this issue head-on doesn't have to be revolutionary. An important first step could simply involve increasing awareness of and sensitivity to various religious beliefs. And as Lao Tzu said, "A journey of 1,000 miles...."

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