Tuesday, April 12, 2011

State Department Demonstrates Its Enduring Cluelessness Regarding Religion and Foreign Policy

A State Department report released by the Associated Press this week documents an internal investigation of Douglas Kmiec, the US ambassador to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The report, compiled in February by the department's Office of Inspector General, describes Kmiec's as devoting "considerable time" to writing on religious issues and themes of interfaith cooperation, which has apparently created friction between the ambassador and some Washington officials.

From the report, via the Huffington Post:
"Based on a belief that he was given a special mandate to promote President Obama's interfaith initiatives, [Kmiec] has devoted considerable time to writing articles for publication in the United States as well as in Malta, and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio."
Kmiec has since offered defended himself in an email sent to the AP:
"I must say that I am troubled and saddened that a handful of individuals within my department in Washington seem to manifest a hostility to expressions of faith and efforts to promote better interfaith understanding...Our constitution proudly protects the free exercise of religion -- even for ambassadors."
The response of the State Department to Kmiec's work is lamentably typical of governmental attitudes toward religion at the level of international policy. While at Harvard Divinity School, I was privileged to take a number of classes on religion and international policy at the Kennedy School of Government. The existence of such classes at an institution like the Kennedy School reflects the recent development of a particularly complicated relationship between religion and international relations. While the interest in engaging religion from an international policy perspective itself represents a degree of progress - such classes would have been all but unthinkable prior to 9/11 - the preferred approaches and attitudes with which international policymakers approach religion still leave much to be desired.

The State Department's investigation of Ambassador Kmiec's writing on religion offers a case in point of the tension between religion and international policy work, and the extreme caution by which many professionals of the latter category approach the former. Policymakers in the US all too often remain stuck in an outdated, realist perspective that overly privileges national security to the detriment of innovative policy developments regarding the constructive capabilities of religion and religious communities at the local and transnational levels. To the extent that US policymakers insist on considering religion solely from a security perspective, they will remain blind to the incredible potential for peace-building within the world's myriad faith traditions, and - as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy - continue to reinforce the view of religion as a force with a limited and typically destructive role to play on the world stage.

 While national security remains an issue of vital concern, viewing religion solely through a security lens inevitably skews governmental priorities when it comes to engaging with religion, and, as is the case with Ambassador Kmiec, can actively impede the sort of creative religious outreach that the United States should be pursuing as a matter of international policy. This is not a matter of reinventing the wheel; international policymakers just need to start taking religion seriously as a potentially constructive force in international affairs rather than focusing solely on its destructive potential. The resources are there, they just have to be recognized for what they really are.
For a particularly interesting perspective on the issue, I recommend Madeleine Albright's fascinating reflections on the role of faith in international affairsThe Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs and R. Scott Appleby's The Ambivalence of the Sacred, which cuts right to the heart of the need for more robust engagement at the international level with the constructive, peace-building potential inherent within all of the major 'world religions.'

While the State Department's decision to investigate Ambassador Kmiec's extracurricular interfaith work is lamentable, it will hopefully serve as a catalyst for a broader discussion about the US government's desperate need to reimagine how it engages with religion at the level of international policy. While religion's inclusion in official conversations regarding US foreign policy represents a certain amount of progress, policymakers clearly have yet to determine what on Earth they are to make of it.

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