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Religion Matters In International Relations

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Like any teacher, I get asked a lot of questions by my students. One in particular, which I received while leading a master's level course on religion with Father Bryan Hehir at Harvard's Kennedy School, struck me as particularly interesting: "Why," a student asked, "does Professor Hehir wear the same thing everyday?" Father (aka Professor) Hehir is an ordained Roman Catholic priest. The "same thing" in question was the traditional clerical black suit and white collar that Catholic priests have worn for decades. Yet this otherwise worldly student did not know this.

What was so remarkable about this comment was how unremarkable it has become in academic settings. Both ignorance of religion and theology in general, and their relevance to global politics, remain ignored or questionable subjects. Even after September 11, colleagues have repeatedly asked me whether religion "really" matters. I always say the same thing: "Go read 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta's letter." Religion matters a great deal, and its positive and negative influence both within and between states is certain to continue well into the coming decades.

The importance of Atta's letter is not only its emphasis on the role of his faith in shaping his and his expected audience's understanding of his actions, but in the significance of his actions as a watershed. For most political and social elites in the United States, September 11 is remembered as a vivid and disturbing sign that religion -- or in this case an extreme interpretation of some precepts of traditional faith -- was becoming a national security issue.

But this interpretation misconstrues when and how religion came to play an increasingly important role in global politics. A recent report by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, claims that the trend has been underway for at least two decades. Yet even this estimate understates the depth of the trend. The real increase -- or more accurately, resurgence -- in the influence of religion began in the late 1960s and has accelerated ever since.

The 1960s saw the Catholic Church undergo a fundamental reassessment of what it means to be a Catholic, Christian, a human. Under Vatican II, the church decreed the right to religious freedom; states now had to respect the basic human rights of all people to choose their own faith. Armed with this new understanding, local actors became empowered and challenged autocratic regimes (and, in some cases, Vatican II put local clergy into difficult circumstances because they were allies of these same regimes). Similar dynamics were at play during the 1980s, when Pope John Paul II challenged communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, offering the local citizens an alternative set of ideas and ideals based in religion. Both Catholic Poles and Lutheran Germans were thus emboldened to shake off the totalitarian, atheistic system.

Next, consider the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The center of gravity of this revolution was not the streets of Tehran (where it was most visible), but in the universities and mosques; with students, teachers and imams questioning basic understandings of what it means to be Shia. These reinterpretations began in the 1960s and paved the way for the Shah's downfall. Like all revolutionary states, the clerical regime in Iran has been forced to accommodate itself to constraints of the existing state system, but religion remains central to the identity of Iran and the legitimacy of its rulers and their policies today. One striking feature about the most recent demonstrations against the regime in Iran is that no one is questioning whether the regime should be Islamic, this is now a settled truth. Iran is and will remain an Islamic Republic; the struggle within Iran is over what form it will take in the future.

We missed the significance of the Iranian revolution, we ignored the power of the Pope, and we missed September 11. Why? Again one may find partial guidance in the Chicago Council Report. It correctly points to some of the reasons why we have failed to integrate religion into American foreign policy, but the report misses a key dimension: the education of our students. The report promotes the education of practitioners in the State Department, the Department of Defense and the interesting notion of drawing on the wealth of veterans to help develop that curriculum, but it says nothing on the education of school-age children or in the university. Stephen Prothero's recent book, Religious Literacy, demonstrated that most Americans remain shockingly unaware of the basic principles of different religious traditions. Remarkably, a good portion of the questions is about Christianity, the supposed faith of a majority of this country's citizens.

In sum, ignorance is everyone's enemy, and it is going to exacerbate two increasingly vital issues in the years ahead.

First and foremost is the way in which religion, religious organizations, and religious actors are being empowered by the plummeting cost and expanding volume of global communication. The Internet and cellular communications have thrown the power of ideas into sharp relief, independent of material wealth. The power of ideas has excessively discounted in states with vast amounts of material wealth; and this may explain why some Western observers treat recent watersheds in the resurgence of religion -- such as Roe v. Wade in the United States, or the Iranian Revolution -- as isolated incidents.

For many in the advanced-industrial world, material objects appear to have a universal meaning. The rise of the Internet has encouraged greater competition over what those objects mean, and allows religious figures to advance and disseminate potent new arguments about the role of the modern world and mankind's place within it. It is equally clear, that states -- and in particular these advanced-industrial states -- have proven considerably less adept at framing their material inheritance in positive ways, as opposed to many of their critics who have managed to frame and re-frame that inheritance as unjust, oppressive, and in a word: sinful.

Second, as we move forward from knowledge to policy formulation, we must not fall victim to the "catch a thief" fallacy. In order to understand and engage religious actors abroad, the United States (as one example) needs to "educate" its political elites in matters of religion. The Chicago Council Report throws this problem into high relief: is it possible to "educate" elites and those they govern about religion without converting them? Also, given the historical tension both within established faiths and between them, will "education" lead to hostility or empathy? Is it possible to engage with political actors whose legitimacy and rule are underpinned by religious identity, without risk of de-secularization?

An obvious example -- which the Chicago Council report highlights -- is debate over the so-called Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. It holds that "Congress shall make no laws regarding the establishment of religion". On the one hand, well-meaning advocates who favor adding religious understanding to the tools available to political elites argue that the Clause should not be interpreted as a constraint on our leaders' capacity to dialogue with religious figures and to develop a sophisticated understanding of influential modes of religious thought.

On the other hand, dissenters worry that such a move might open U.S. political elites to more pervasive efforts at religious conversion. In sum, we need to know whether it's possible to increase the level of understanding of religious actors without starting down the slippery slope to an overtly faith-based policy, thereby raising a longer-term threat of overt religious war. It's a question that cries out for further research and reflection.