“Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy” is an ambitious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking report that makes for necessary reading. Public discussions of religion are always difficult, and any attempt to forge a path for the United States to engage religion in world affairs is destined to leave controversy in its wake. Accordingly, the authors deserve considerable credit for confronting a cluster of hot-button issues—and, moreover, for doing so through a comprehensive and wide-ranging dialogue that included a broad spectrum of opinions. This report should be debated and discussed, not necessarily because it answers the difficult questions to everyone’s satisfaction, but rather because it confronts the difficult questions and tries, with honesty and integrity, to propose possible solutions. I was a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Task Force on Religion and the Making of U.S. Foreign Policy that informed the report, and, while I proudly associate myself with it, there are two issues that worry me.
First, there is a tone that suggests that the U.S. is “here” and the religious world is “out there.” The report under-appreciates the extent to which American society is both deeply religious and multidenominational. This oversight has several consequences, including that the report does not highlight the fact that the U.S., while by no means a paragon of religious freedom, is not a bad role model. The United States is criticized for not leading by example in many other areas of foreign policy, but in the matter of religious tolerance the United States has a strong track record. I do not mean to suggest that the report should have been overly self-congratulatory. Instead, the report might have communicated its broader points more effectively by conveying the ways in which the United States confronts the challenges of religious pluralism, rather than by telling others what they ought to be doing in this regard. Making this move might have had the subsidiary effect of gently warning American policymakers against thoughts of exceptionalism. By failing to fully recognize and appreciate the extent to which questions surrounding the place of religion in public life foster enduring debates in the United States, the reader oriented toward an American exceptionalism might in turn exoticize others.
Second, I worry about an “engagement” that is overly driven by security concerns. We know that the United States foreign policy community cares about religion at the moment primarily because of the view that some religious organizations are potential adversaries, standing in the way of vital national interests. This security-oriented background shapes various features of the report, and there is thus a danger that religion will become securitized. What would happen if foreign policy actors in the U.S. decided to “incorporate” religion into their thinking solely because of its relevance to security concerns? Do we really want the National Security Council to become involved in the governance of religion? What happens once religion becomes an affair of the security community? That is, what in our understanding of religion do we risk losing by interpreting it first and foremost as a tactical concern?
The report generally embraces a nondiscriminatory spirit, but at times it might be read as advising that the U.S. embrace “good Muslims” and confront “bad Muslims.” I do not mean to suggest that the United States needs to accept or embrace all religious actors, regardless of their principles, political theologies, or actions. Instead, I mean to stress how the United States should declare a commitment to basic principles, including dialogue, respect, and nonviolence. Engagement, in this sense, means commitment to a process, rather than a desired outcome. There is the potential for the report to be read as so exclusively outcome-oriented that it would advocate engagement only on the United States’ unilaterally defined terms. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the report should have emphasized that dialogue and engagement require that “we” be prepared to listen and learn. The tone of the report might give the impression that the world needs to change, but the U.S. doesn’t. My view is that while there is nothing wrong with hoping that engagement will advance U.S. foreign policy interests, the report missed an opportunity to emphasize that Americans might also—intellectually, emotionally, and culturally—benefit from such exchanges.
The report does a good job of balancing the need for direct and indirect forms of pressure, but my preference would be to decidedly emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Such an approach would allow the United States to advocate its stance on the principles of religious freedom, but rather than try to pressure foreign governments to increase religious tolerance, as defined by the United States, the U.S. would work to promote institutions and capacities that allow individuals to express themselves. The report does not accurately reflect the fact that most norm diffusion (whether regarding religious freedom, democracy, or human rights) does not proceed from direct engagement by hegemonic powers, but rather from the creation of a dense global normative framework that allows groups and individuals on the ground to organize, assert, and discover their interests and values.