A Discussion with Thomas Banchoff, Director, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

With: Thomas Banchoff Berkley Center Profile

May 22, 2011

Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in spring 2011 Lucy Stephenson interviewed Thomas Banchoff, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and associate professor in the Government Department and the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, about the intersections of U.S. foreign policy, religion, and track-two diplomacy.

Do you think that other countries view the United States as secular or religious?

Different countries and populations often view the United States as either extremely secular or extremely religious. In the context of cultural aspects such as consumerism and individualism, there is often a tendency to view America as a kind of secular Babylon with religion, ethics, and morals marginalized. However, when people look at U.S. foreign policy, the historical memory of colonialism is a major factor. The United States is itself a postcolonial power but is seen by many as the heir to European colonialism. The negative international reaction to Bush’s mention of “crusade” after September 11 is an example of such historical legacies in action. There is a wide perception that the extension of Christianity abroad is a goal of U.S. foreign policy.

How do you think that religion factors into foreign policy?

I think religion plays three main roles. The first is the way in which religious groups, or the religious community generally, mobilize in support of foreign policy goals that mirror their particular agendas. We see this in the coalition of groups that supports international religious freedom, for example, and a strong U.S.-Israel alliance. This is the classic domestic policy influencing foreign policy.

The second connection is captured by the idea of civil religion and how religious themes are embedded in foreign policy discourse. This is especially true of presidential rhetoric, which is replete with references to the spread of freedom, U.S. interests, and God's purpose as one and the same historical movement. We saw this most recently in President [Barack] Obama's inaugural address, but there were also echoes of it in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, where he emphasized the special connection between American values and the cause of freedom around the world.

The final connection is the role that religion plays in actual foreign policy issues. The issue here is whether a certain conflict or problem has a religious element. For example, there is a clear religious element in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the war in Afghanistan, and in civil violence in parts of Africa. To address these foreign policy issues effectively, you need an adequate understanding of their foreign policy dimension.

How well do you think the United States deals with religious issues in foreign policy?

Not as well as it should. There was a consensus during the Cold War and particularly during the 1970s that the world was becoming more secular. As religion has become more salient across a host of issues and world regions, diplomats and experts have not fully appreciated its significance. There is still a strong tendency to bracket the faith angle and view issues through the lens of material factors, such as economic and security interests. Religious issues are viewed as problematic because they’re difficult and dangerous, and the more that you can frame an issue without a religious dimension, the easier it is to solve. But often solutions, or progress towards them, require tackling the faith dimension head-on.

Do you think that engaging religious leaders would be useful in advancing U.S. foreign policy?

It’s context-dependent. We still live in a state system, and states are still very protective of their sovereignty. But depending on the nature of the regime, religious groups may have a voice and be valuable partners. In countries with vibrant civil societies, engaging religious leaders can be a good way to address particular policy challenges, such as human rights and economic and social development. Religious leaders often have a high degree of legitimacy. But the U.S. government should always work most closely and directly with other governments—not just out of respect for a country's sovereignty, but also because governments have the greatest leverage in addressing policy problems.

So, how does the U.S. better engage with these religious issues?

I see two main avenues. The first is professional education. Foreign policy professionals should receive better training in religious literacy and in the role of religion in world affairs, across regions and issue areas.

The second is deeper dialogue with governments and civil society actors that incorporates the religious dimension. The goal of such dialogue is not just to foster mutual understanding and trust, but to broaden the knowledge base for effective policy. Even those skeptical of religion's role in world affairs need to better understand it.

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