Religion and International Diplomacy

Faith’s Strategic Role Needed

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 11, 2009 ( relevance of Benedict XVI’s message for the World Day of Peace (Jan. 1) was underlined by the outbreak of conflict in Gaza. Subsequently the Pontiff pleaded for an end to the fighting in his Jan. 4 midday Angelus message, saying that conflict and hate cannot be a solution to problems.

Religion is frequently cited as a source of conflicts, particularly in recent years with the rise in terrorism. Nevertheless religion can also be a vital force in promoting peace and the resolution of tensions, argued Thomas F. Farr in his recently published book, «World of Faith and Freedom,» (Oxford University Press).

Farr, currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, underscored a serious lack of understanding about religion in foreign policy of the United States.

His experience of 21 years in the American Foreign Service was later supplemented by a period, from 1999 to 2003, as the U.S. State Department’s first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom.

The importance of religious liberty is one of the main points made in the book. An example Farr gives also highlights the shortsightedness of diplomats. The United States had declared in foreign policy documents its intent to implant democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq as a means of fighting Islamic extremism.

Yet Afghanistan’s new constitution, which came into force in 2004, had serious defects regarding religious freedom. Abdul Rahman found this out when he converted from Islam to Christianity and was put on trial for apostasy in Afghanistan’s courts. Only after international pressure was he released.


Both the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in 2004 and the Department of State had affirmed that the Afghan constitution guaranteed religious liberty. According to Farr the new constitution allowed extremism to be enshrined in law, and the foreign policy officials simply did not pay sufficient attention to the matter of religion.

This neglect of religion has far-ranging consequences, argued Farr. Religion’s contribution to society and culture makes it a vital ingredient in ensuring a stable self-government.

A good example of the impact of religion, Farr noted, is what is taking place now in China. At the same time the economic and military power of China is growing the number of followers of religion in China is exploding. The Chinese government fears the effects of this and has fiercely persecuted religious believers, but as the number of adherents to churches continues to grow, the Chinese will have to find a way to accommodate religion, or witness serious instability.

Farr identified a number of causes leading to the undervaluing of religion in U.S. foreign policy: Some officials are reluctant to enter the potentially troubled area of religion, fearing what they might provoke or controversy over their actions. Others are only interested in religion when it results in terrorist attacks.

Another cause is that most diplomats and foreign policy experts simply do not perceive the importance of religion in culture and politics. Farr is quick to point out that this is not due to a lack of faith, as many of these people are religious, but they see religion as a purely private matter and analyze politics according to realist and rational methods.

This separation of religion and public life has its origins in the separation of religion and state established in the American constitution, Farr explained. As well, diplomats fear that the absolute truths present in religion will endanger the compromises needed in democratic government, so consequently religion needs to be excluded from the public square.

Thus, noted Farr, the Rahman trial and the whole question of religious liberty is seen by most in the foreign policy establishment to be a humanitarian issue, instead of being an indicator of deep cultural and political problems.

Adequate instruction

He also pointed out that it is not just diplomats who are to blame for this neglect of religion. Farr described how many academic institutions pay little attention, even after the events of 2001, to the relationship between religion and foreign policy.

As a case in point, Farr cited a 2006 declaration by a Harvard University curriculum committee that graduates were not being educated to know the role of religion in contemporary or historical events. It is vital to change this so that future diplomats will receive an adequate instruction on this key topic, Farr argued.

«This does not mean the diplomats must be theologians, any more than they must be lawyers or economists,» Farr declared. «It means they must rediscover the first principle of realism, which is to understand things as they are and to call them by their right names.»

Farr also maintained that his recommendations are not about the religious right or the religious left. Neither should foreign policy depend on a specific belief or religion. Instead he urged that what the United States should do is to address the public effects of religion, both positive and negative, by promoting religious freedom and achieving a stable balance between the overlapping authorities of religion and state.

Track record

Farr also examined the record of the United States since the approval of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. In principle, this commits the U.S. to the advancement of religious liberty around the world.

In practice, however, Farr lamented that the government has done little to actively promote such a policy. The State Department has limited its role to religious persecution, and trying to free those imprisoned because of their beliefs. Nevertheless, after 10 years Farr argued that there is little improvement as regards religious persecution and in those areas where it has improved, U.S. policy has usually not been the cause.

One of the reasons for this lack of influence, Farr explained, is the separation of the efforts to ensure religious freedom from the wider policies regarding national security. Too often the efforts against religious persecution are limited to rhetorical denunciations. Moreover, Farr pointed out, it is not enough just to fight against religious persecution; instead what is needed is a coherent strategy to promote religious freedom.

Religious liberty is not only the freedom from unjust imprisonment or persecution, but includes the right to public action and to contribute to the formation of public policy, within limits similar to those of other individuals and groups, declared Farr.

Religious liberty, he continued, also means that the claims of both religion and the state are able to be continually reconciled and rebalanced by putting limits on both. This freedom, grounded in a differentiation, is distinct from a strict separation, such as in America, or the establishment of a purely secular state, like the French model, that excludes religion from any public role.

Establishing this sort of religious freedom is far from an easy task, Farr admitted. Yet he argued that a growing body of scholarly research shows that religious freedom is the key element in the set of freedoms that include political liberty and freedom of speech. This bundle of freedoms is essential for a democracy, Farr pointed out.

«We must be able to make the case that societies willing to construct democracies based on religious freedom are more likely to last, their citizens to flourish, and their religious communities to have a legitimate influence on democratic policy,» Farr argued. Not an easy task, whether for America or any country, but one that is clearly vital in ensuring a more peaceful world.

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