09/11/2013 12:29 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Honoring Their Sacrifice

Today our nation observes the 12th anniversary of 9-11. In remembering those who paid the ultimate price on that fateful day, it becomes appropriate to take stock of how far we have come in developing a coherent response to the religious extremism that gave rise to that attack and continues to fuel others like it. The sacrifices of our sons and daughters who have been going in harm's way to cope with this challenge demand no less than a thoughtful strategy for preventing such attacks in the future.

Beyond our ongoing military interventions and concerted attempts to address existing vulnerabilities -- ranging from improved airport security to intelligence sharing across previously competitive lines -- the most noteworthy measure taken to date has been the recent establishment of the new State Department Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. At the dedication ceremony in reference to "this singular, historic initiative," Secretary Kerry said "we ignore the global impact of religion, at our peril." He went on to urge State Department employees to "go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions they can make individually and that we can make together." Quite a step for a widely recognized bastion of secularism.

Although this day has been too long in coming and the office will be traversing a complex minefield as it seeks to execute its charter, the fact of its establishment represents a major step forward in penetrating the long-held, institutionalized indifference to religion's role in world affairs. More will be required, however, to give religious engagement its full due in foreign policy. At the front of this particular hit parade, is the need to address the political ambiguities surrounding our long-held separation of church and state. This separation has served us well and should not be compromised, but the associated legal uncertainties are inhibiting U.S. political and military leaders from engaging the religious dimensions of the threats they are facing. In short, we are out there fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.

To address this reality, the President should task the Justice Department with providing the legal case for including religious engagement as a component of U.S. foreign policy. With this in hand, he should then seek top-level bipartisan endorsement from the Congressional leadership. Such a step would free up the creative energies of our foreign policy practitioners and enable them to start capitalizing on the positive role that religious leaders and institutions can play in building trust and overcoming differences.

This suggestion is not lightly made; it is based both on need and logic, the latter of which is set forth in chapter eight of my recent book Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement. As attested to by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III at a National Press Club event relating to the book's publication: "One of the most important contributions of this book is an accurate depiction of what the proper relationship between the state and religion actually is under our constitution."

Since the inception of International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) in 1999, we have been using religious values to bridge differences between adversaries in various conflict-prone areas around the world. Thus far, we have engaged religion in this manner to: (1) help end the 21-year civil war in Sudan, (2) ease religious tensions between the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist regions of Kashmir, (3) open back-channel communications to promote improved relations with Iran, (4) secure the release of the 21 Korean missionaries held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan, (5) facilitate greater cooperation between American Muslim leaders and U.S. government officials in combating religious extremism, (6) work with madrasa leaders in Pakistan to reform the religious school curriculums and pedagogy in order to create critical thinking skills among the students and inspire greater adherence to religious tolerance and human rights, and (7) work with opposition (and other) leaders in Syria to help resolve their internal differences.

It should be noted that U.S. government officials are not well-suited for this kind of faith-based diplomacy owing to church/state restrictions and government political agendas that inevitably compromise the balanced neutrality such activity requires. Although government cannot own the process, there are any number of ways in which it can reinforce it and build upon it to solidify the gains of religious peacemakers. With this as our challenge, let's do all we can to honor those sacrifices.

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