The Magazine

Spiritualpolitique

Religion matters more than ever in global affairs. But don't count on the experts--or the State Department--to know that.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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Similarly, writing in 1991, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington explored the global fortunes of democracy during the period 1974 to 1990, which he termed democracy's "third wave." Huntington identified 33 instances of democratization (versus just three of "democratic reversal"). Religion, he argued, was critical to this wave: "In many countries, Protestant and Catholic church leaders have been central in the struggles against repressive [governments]. . . . Catholicism was second only to economic development as a pervasive force making for democratization in the 1970s and 1980s."

Correct, but after The Third Wave, Huntington half-forgot how best to think about religion. In a controversial 1993 article and 1996 book, he speculated about the conditions under which the world might witness (or avert) a "clash of civilizations." He argued that ideology, economics, and nation-states would be far less central to future international conflicts than they had been in the past. The "principal conflicts of global politics," he predicted, "will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations." He stressed that Western democracies did not have all the answers, and scolded those who graded other "civilizations" by how kindred they were to American political norms.

But Huntington's conceptual framework was a sweeping, multivariable mess that loosely related religion to ethnic, racial, regional, and other history-moving forces. His provocative prediction was not warranted by such empirical data as he mustered. When it came time to delineate "civilizations," he created his own categories: "Islamic" covered places from Albania to Azerbaijan; "Sinic" included China and Vietnam; "Japan" was its own "civilization." And so on. Ostensibly well-informed people describe the situation in Iraq in relation to Huntington's "clash" thesis. But it should be obvious that the contest between Sunnis and Shiites is an intra-religious conflict with deep roots in Islamic history. It is not unlike the conflict (receded but not forgotten) in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, an intra-religious conflict with centuries-old roots in Christian history.

You know that you are skirting rather than seeing important realities when you are using identity concepts that are nobody's actual identity. You do not need to go globe-trotting to understand why. For example, New Orleans is home to Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Its Catholic members are not Creoles or Cajuns. The church's "Post-Katrina Recovery News" website is in Vietnamese. Since the biblical-sized floods receded, its leaders have deepened ties to many English-speaking churches and community groups, Catholic and non-Catholic. To understand these leaders, their people, and their institution, to map their community relations, or to gauge their present or potential civic role, it would not help to categorize them as either "Sinic" expatriates or "Westerners" on the make.

Huntington's big-think Harvard colleague, Joseph S. Nye, has been less controversial and more cogent conceptually. Nye is famous for his 2004 work on so-called soft power, meaning how nations get what they want through attraction rather than coercion (multilateral ties, not military tussles; economic incentives, not muscle-bound sanctions). America, he claims, has squandered opportunities to amass and use soft power. He does not deny that religion can pack a soft-power punch, but religion gets only a few passing mentions in his magnum opus.

Nye opens with Machiavelli, who wrote that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved. Nye challenges that dictum by claiming that soft power often succeeds where hard power fumbles or fails. Fair enough, but as Nye also knows, the medieval Italian for all seasons counseled that rulers need both hard-power swords and soft-power plowshares (or swords that rulers can opt to beat into plowshares as circumstances may dictate).

As Nye might have emphasized, history teaches that when religion is used as hard power, it sooner or later destroys those who wield it. Christianity's hard-power-wielding religions, including king-making Catholicism, had their days (even centuries) but resulted in ruins (and, in Catholicism's case, a junior role in North America). Protestant-inspired church-state separation doctrine is a prudential prohibition against using religion as hard power at home, and a caution against using religion as hard power abroad. It is also an invitation for the state to be faith-friendly, promote religious pluralism, and avoid sectarian strife.

Thus, what I hereby baptize as spiritualpolitique is a soft-power perspective on politics that emphasizes religion's domestic and international significance, accounts for religion's present and potential power to shape politics within and among nations, and understands religion not as some abstract force measured by its resiliency vis-à-vis "modernity" and not by its supporting role in "civilizations" that cooperate or clash. Rather, a perspective steeped in spiritualpolitique requires attention to the particularities that render this or that actual religion as preached and practiced by present-day peoples so fascinating to ethnographers (who can spend lifetimes immersed in single sects) and so puzzling to most of the social scientists who seek, often in vain, to characterize and quantify religions, or to track religion-related social and political trends.

Consider how this perspective might inform the ongoing debate on Iraq. Some have advocated increasing the U.S. presence in Iraq and staying there until violence is well under wraps. Others have devised or advocated various draw-down or get-out plans. Although it took a few years, almost all now acknowledge that the struggle behind most homegrown bombings that have killed innocent civilians in Iraq has specific religious roots. But some on both sides in the debate over U.S. policy seem not yet to know that any conflict-ending compromise or resolution, no matter its military, economic, or other features, will not last unless it takes those particular religious differences very seriously. It is not a "civil war." It is "sectarian violence," complicated by the region's wider religious rifts and their intersections with state-supported terrorism networks.

Spiritualpolitique lesson one is that even in stable representative democracies, intra-national religious cleavages, whether long-buried or out in the open, always matter to who governs and to what ends. The religious cleavages in Iraq existed long before the U.S. occupation. And the sectarian sources of the violence there will persist even if the country somehow, some day becomes a textbook, multi-party, stable parliamentary democracy. (If you doubt it, just study the Israeli Knesset in action.)  

Spiritualpolitique lesson two is that constitutionalism, not democratization, matters most where religious differences run deepest or remain most intense. It was good to hold elections in Iraq. Majority rule via free and fair plebiscites is often among the first steps toward a more humane polity, whatever its official form and legal formalities. But majority rule can also mean the proverbial two wolves and a sheep deciding what is for supper. Constitutionalism, democracy or not, means that a government's powers are limited and any law-abiding civic minority's fundamental rights--starting with religious rights--are legally sacred.

Nothing, however, complicates the march to constitutionalism like religious differences, especially when, as is almost always the case, those differences are fodder for what the Founding Fathers denounced as "foreign intrigues." Consider what James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, and reflect on America's own history. When Madison discussed how political "factions" could tear a people apart, the very first source he mentioned was "a zeal for different opinions concerning religion."

The Constitution's ratification was threatened by Protestant true believers who cursed the clause forbidding any religious tests for federal office-holding. They rejected, but Americans now happily live, Madison's vision--a "multiplicity of sects" (Methodists, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and others) that each shape but do not dominate life in this large, commercial republic "under God."

Madison and company cut a political deal known to us as the First Amendment's two religion clauses: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." This meant that, for the time being, each state could have a tax-funded and ceremonially favored religion if it wanted, but the national government would remain forever neutral on religion. In the early 20th century, the Supreme Court erased the deal's last legal traces by holding that religious liberty is so "fundamental" that no religious establishments by the states are constitutionally permissible.

Until midcentury, not much changed. But then, in the early 1960s, tradition-minded Protestants, largely self-exiled politically since the Scopes "monkey trials," became convinced that the Court was going too far in ridding religion from the public square (the 1962 decision banning state-sponsored school prayer was the watershed moment). They entered the political fray. Thus began the evangelical mobilizations that revolutionized our two-party politics and shaped several recent presidential elections.

Interestingly enough, the single biggest program to result from born-again President Bush's push for faith-based initiatives has been international, not domestic: a $15 billion, five-year effort to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. In May 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the aforementioned Bishop Charles Blake and other church leaders with ties to religious nongovernmental organizations abroad that could help to get the job done.

Targeted mainly at 15 countries, and zeroing in on Africa (where two-thirds of the more than 3.5 million yearly deaths from the disease now occur), the soft-power program was championed inside the West Wing by Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter who became the president's "compassion agenda" czar. Gerson is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He and his council colleague Walter Russell Mead are two foreign policy wonks who take religion seriously. And the council's president, Richard N. Haass, has publicly opined that religion matters in world affairs today more than it has for centuries.

But Gerson, Mead, and Haass remain exceptions to the expert rule, and not only at the council. In fact, to a remarkable degree, most foreign policy elites remain not only ignorant but also reluctant when it comes to discussing religion. In November 2006, the Pew Charitable Trusts (parent to the Pew religion program cited above) published in its magazine, Trust, a feature essay by a freelance writer named Sue Rardin. Entitled "Eyes Wide Shut," Rardin's article quoted numerous thought leaders and policy makers who expressed reservations about focusing on religion. She summarized their core concern as follows: "Addressing religious differences means entering discussions where moral values--our own as well as those of others--may not be governed by reason alone, but may be held more fiercely than if they were."

There is only one word for American foreign policy elites, Democratic and Republican, left and right, who downplay or disregard religion to their peril, ours--and the world's--in deference to the dogma that being faith-free promotes objectivity: preposterous. Or, as Rardin editorialized well: "It's as imprudent to ignore the role of religion in foreign policy as it is to pretend that the elephant is in some other room, rather than right here."

It is bad to doubt the overwhelming empirical evidence that religion matters to domestic politics as well as the delivery of social services. But it is far worse to treat religion as a back-burner reality in global affairs when it is boiling over in so many places. The State Department needs to wake up and smell the incense. There is already an international legal framework for thinking out loud and acting in concert with other nations on religion's role in global affairs. Religious freedom is addressed in the 1948 United Nations "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Article 18, which encompasses "teaching, practice, worship, and observance." Its terms are echoed by several other U.N. Declarations, including a 1981 General Assembly-backed document calling for ending all state-sponsored religious discrimination.

This international legal framework is reinforced by several federal statutes that were passed with bipartisan support. For instance, a 1998 federal law, signed by President Clinton, puts America firmly on the hook to support religious freedom abroad (the International Religious Freedom Act). Subject to that act, the State Department and other federal agencies are required to report any relevant information they have regarding "countries of particular concern." The 2006 list included Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

Not much, however, is actually done by Washington to act on these concerns, end religious persecution, or support nations that abide by both U.N. and U.S. standards governing respect for religious pluralism. Just how little can be glimpsed by comparing the federal government's faith-based funding at home and abroad.

At home, domestic sacred places serving civic purposes have been discriminated against in myriad ways by grant-making federal agencies. Things have gotten a bit better since the first relevant federal laws protecting their rights went on the books in 1996. The Bush administration boasts that more than $2 billion a year in federal grants now goes to qualified, community-serving faith-based organizations. Even if that figure is accepted at face value (many experts dispute it), $2 billion is still a relative pittance: The federal government gives out hundreds of billions of dollars in such grants each year, and over a third of all organizations supplying certain social services in big cities are faith-based.

It is, however, a bishop's ransom compared with the $591 million that the United States Agency for International Development granted faith-based organizations operating abroad in Fiscal Year 2005. Last September, Terri Hasdorff, the agency's faith-based center director, testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa. She noted that "the vast majority of faith-based awards are made to a small number of groups." Judged against both the more than $20 billion a year in bilateral foreign aid and the government's professed goal of providing better public health and other services around the globe, it is an astonishingly low sum.

Totalitarians, secular or religious, who know what they are about have always gone beyond merely banning this or that religion or establishing a state religion (Mao's little red book and cult come quickly to mind) to killing religious leaders, gulag-ticketing or terrorizing religious followers, and destroying (physically in many cases) religion's last traces (books, buildings). Religion, however, almost always proves resilient, often reasserting itself in its very pre-revolutionary or dictator-forbidden forms.

Thus, today's democracy-loving, constitutionalism-forging leaders in America and other nations should acknowledge, respect, and, where appropriate, boost religious good works both at home and abroad. When it comes to spiritualpolitique, God will help those who help others.

John J. DiIulio Jr., a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future, from which this essay is adapted, forthcoming this fall from University of California Press.