Closing the God gap abroad

UPI POY 2008 - News and Features

Earlier in the week I linked to the Washington Post story headlined “‘God gap’ impedes U.S. foreign policy, task force says.” Some readers will be delighted to see that it’s bylined by Godbeat fave David Waters. Here’s the lede:

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 council’s 32-member task force, which included former government officials and scholars representing all major faiths, delivered its report to the White House on Tuesday. The report warns of a serious “capabilities gap” and recommends that President Obama make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”

We’re frequently talking about the need for journalists to understand how religion plays a major role in foreign affairs. I thought it was interesting that, according to this report, it’s not just the media but diplomats and foreign policy wonks who could heed the same advice. I was curious what readers thought of the article so I did something that is almost always a bad idea: I visited the story’s comments page. Sifting through the subliterate rantings and ravings of the masses there, it became apparent that many readers thought that the Council wanted the United States to promote Christianity.

I thought the article clearly explained simply that the Council wants U.S. foreign policy leaders and operatives to understand how religion is important in other countries. And I’ve yet to see a Washington Post story where the comments indicated that readers understood it very well. Anyway, it seems obvious that even though our country has no established religion, the same doesn’t hold for other countries and foreign organizations.

But this other story I read on the report could also be misconstrued, I think. Here’s how the piece, from CNN, begins:

Religion is a growing factor in world affairs, but the U.S. government tends to view it through the lens of counterterrorism. That’s the conclusion of a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

I don’t think the second clause of that first sentence makes much sense. And I don’t think that it’s fair to say that the first sentence is the conclusion of the study. The Post piece goes through the recommendations from the study and gives a different perspective, as evidenced from the excerpt above.

The CNN piece notes that the report discusses some of the positive world trends being led by religious groups. But it also includes these paragraphs:

“Religion has played a negative role in U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially in relations with the Muslim world,” notes Thomas Wright, executive director of studies for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the report’s project director.

The strategy of engaging religious communities is not trying to circumvent the First Amendment, observed Wright.

“The separation of church and state is vital and must be preserved in foreign as well as domestic policy,” Wright said.

I think that there’s an issue with the set up to these quotes. I could use more assistance in understanding what Wright means by the phrase “negative role.” And I think that the second point — about separation of church and state — is fantastic to include as a clarifying matter but could be further clarified for the average reader.

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  • Dave

    I don’t think the second clause of that first sentence makes much sense.

    It makes sense as a well-formed claim of fact. Whether the facts conform to the claim is another matter.

  • Jimmy Mac

    That could be a photo of St. Peter’s square in 50-100 years, the way the world’s demographics are changing.

  • Jerry

    Sifting through the subliterate rantings and ravings of the masses there, it became apparent that many readers thought that the Council wanted the United States to promote Christianity.

    There is certainly a lot of nonsense there from the radical atheists on the left who see religion as the source of all humanity’s problems to the radical right who refuse to accept the validity of science. But you painted with too broad a brush. For example, here’s part of one comment that showed someone got the message:

    Many folks are missing the point here, which is that failure to account for the ROLE of religion in culture and politics weakens our foreign policy. It’s not that our foreign policy has to be religious at all. Rather, our foreign policy simply has to acknowledge that religion is foundational in many cultures and that engaging with religious elements in foreign cultures can be done to our benefit. Failure to do so is dangerous.

    But you are right that too many today have given way to intolerance and superstition.

    Especially in foreign policy where we need to understand other cultures and religions while upholding our own in spite of some taking offense because of our beliefs, we need “teaching” new stories that help those who are reachable understand what the issues are and how they can be approached.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Norwegian Shooter

    Godbeat fave? Well, if you mean he writes at the level of Tiger Beat. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    Undiplomatic has a refutation of the report’s understanding by Waters. And a comment from Tom Wright backs him up – and offers the CNN article as a good story instead.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Norwegian Shooter

    Just noticed that the tinyurl is a link to himself [Tom Wright]. Here’s one quote:

    The report does not actually say that U.S. foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and uncompromising Western secular bias and we agree that U.S. foreign policy has been damaged by the foolish use of religion as well as by a failure to understand the role of religion in world affairs. The mention of an “uncompromising Western secularism” is raised in the context of alternative strategies to the one we’re proposing.


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