International Intrigue: Group Seeks More Religion In U.S. Foreign Policy

Secular government is a positive value that’s worth exporting overseas.

Yesterday, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 32-member task force asked the U.S. government to make religion “integral” to American foreign policy. 

The group claims that countries see America’s focus on religious freedom as a form of imperialism and concludes that Western secularism feeds into religious extremism.

The report, produced by a group who wants to see government entangled with religion even at home, thinks the U.S. needs to close the “God gap.” To do this, they have asked for two things: that government officials and diplomats be educated about religion and that they have the ability to “engage” with religious communities abroad to get things done. Right now, the task force claims there are too many obstacles – namely the First Amendment – that prevent this type of activity.

Writing on The Washington Post’s Web site, Susan Jacoby, who agreed that education on religion could be valuable, otherwise criticized the council’s recommendations for being “stunning in their naïveté.”

She accurately points out in The Post’s “On Faith” blog what can happen when American citizens interact too deeply with religious groups abroad. She cites the situation in Uganda, where a series of lectures on homosexuality by Religious Right activists led to the proposal of an anti-gay law by Ugandan legislator, David Bahati.

“[O]ne can only shudder at the thought of diplomats being urged to work more closely with religious groups,” Jacoby writes.

I was especially struck by language in the report that seems to indicate that America should be reluctant to champion human rights abroad because it might offend some religious believers. It calls on the United States to “recognize that human rights can be implemented effectively and robustly only in a manner consistent with different traditions and beliefs.”

But what about when the prevailing “traditions and beliefs” simply refuse to recognize certain groups’ rights? In some nations, women and members of minority religions are considered second-class citizens because of oppressive unions of religion and government. Is the report seriously arguing that our country not speak out against that? Remarkable!

Unfortunately, the Chicago Council’s recommendation may actually be taken seriously. Members of the task force met with Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and other government officials on Tuesday. In addition, the group has close ties to President Obama, who spoke once to the council as a state senator and twice as a U.S. Senator. Michelle Obama is even on their board.

We hope the report receives no more attention than it already has. What this group is calling for is unnecessary. They have made it seem that as things stand, Americans abroad must practice “secular fundamentalism” and can’t even acknowledge the existence of religion. That’s not true.

Government officials abroad should of course be educated about religion and the role it plays in the countries they travel to; no one disputes that. But that doesn’t mean we need to be ashamed of our country’s own tradition of ensuring religion doesn’t control government decisions. We are a secular state. The report seems to think that’s something to be ashamed of rather than a reason for pride.

Secular government is a positive value that’s worth exporting overseas. Think of it – our most stable and strongest allies tend to have secular governments either officially or by default. (When was the last time Finland caused any problems?) By contrast, harsh theocracies are usually dangerous and unstable, often harboring terrorists.

Just as Americans advocate for better conditions for citizens all of the world – such as urging countries to respect free speech, democratic elections and human rights – we can and should do the same for religious freedom. Many theocratic Middle Eastern nations, for example, would do well to adopt secular governments.

We have seen the benefits of our system – it keeps religious bigotry and disputes over religion at bay, while allowing religion to flourish. Why shouldn’t we be proud of what we have accomplished?