Religion’s Role in International Society

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, SEPT. 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Amid the clatter of popular books attacking religion, one of the more frequent accusations made is that faith is guilty of fomenting political conflict. Clearly, it can’t be denied that religion is sometimes a factor in provoking dissension. On the other hand, it can also be powerful force for good both in national and international politics. 

A study published in July by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), provides an interesting overview of the interplay between faith-related factors and the foreign policy of the United States. 

The report is titled, “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement With Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings.” It starts by observing that faith-based groups have played a major role in determining U.S. foreign policy in countries such as Sudan and China. In addition, religiously motivated terrorists have threatened security, and the United States is also involved in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where religion is a critical factor. 

In spite of religion’s importance, in general there has been a failure to understand its role — a failing that has hampered U.S. policy, the CSIS comments — even to the point of harming the country’s national security. 

These inadequacies stem from a variety of causes, according to the report. 

— Government officials are often reluctant to address the issue of religion. Many in the government see religion as a dangerous or divisive issue best left out of analysis. 

— Official frameworks for approaching religion are narrow, often approaching religions as problematic or monolithic forces, overemphasizing a terrorism-focused analysis of Islam and sometimes marginalizing religion as a peripheral humanitarian or cultural issue. 

— Institutional capacity to understand and approach religion is limited due to legal limitations, lack of religious expertise or training, and a lack of structures able to deal with religious groups and leaders. 

Peace and conflict 

The bulk of the report is dedicated to analyzing how the U.S. government deals with religion in its foreign relations. Nevertheless, it also deals with questions related to religion as a source of, or a solution to, strife. 

Religion, the report points out, can be an aggravating factor in conflicts in a number of ways. These include provoking strife between different faith communities, repressing minority religious groups, and conflict between the government and religious groups over control of the state. 

On the positive side, the CSIS argues that religious groups and leaders can often be effective diplomats due to their credibility with local communities. This can give them what the report terms a “unique leverage for promoting reconciliation among conflicting parties.” A case in point cited by the study is the faith-based Community of Sant’Egidio, which played an effective part in resolving conflict in Mozambique. 

In addition, religion can help to heal persons and communities after conflicts are over and provide a place where both grievances and discussions on how to achieve greater tolerance can be held. 

Another way in which religion contributes to communities is through helping the poor. The charitable works carried out by many faith communities often play a vital role in developing nations. The report noted, for example that more than half of the hospitals operating in Africa are run by faith-based organizations. 

In some countries U.S. government agencies provide aid in partnership with religious groups. A further example of working together comes from Burundi, where a U.S. agency worked with Catholic Relief Services to encourage the establishment of a peace and reconciliation commission comprising members of various ethnic and religious orientations. 

So far almost all the government aid has been channeled through Christian groups. Of the $1.7 billion identified going to faith-based organizations from 2001 to 2005, 98% went to Christian organizations. 

Spiritual perspective 

Another look at the relationship between religion and U.S. foreign policy came in an article published in the May 14 issue of the Weekly Standard magazine. John J. Dilulio Jr., who for a period in 2001 was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, titled his essay “Spiritualpolitique.” 

From Brazil to Belize and Beirut to Boston, he commented, “religion in over a hundred forms and in a thousand different ways has outlived ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity.'” 

Dilulio explained that by the term “spiritualpolitique,” he means a view of religion that takes into account its significant power to shape politics within and among nations. It also means understanding religion not as something portrayed as being in conflict with modernity, but as something preached and practiced by many people. 

Even in stable democracies we need to realize, Dilulio commented, that religious differences play an important role. In countries where democracy and constitutional rule are still in the process of formation, religion can be a complicating factor in achieving national unity. 

Therefore, he recommended that government officials should wake up and pay a lot more attention to the role of religion and its impact on global politics. 

Religion in action 

A broader consideration of religion’s impact on conflicts came in a book published earlier this year titled: “Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution.” The book, a series of essays edited by David Little, is dedicated to a number of case studies of religious figures who have helped to promote peace. 

A useful concluding chapter by Little draws together some conclusions that can be deduced from the book’s profiles. He urges readers to avoid two oversimplifications. The first is that religion can best be seen as violence, or clashes of civilization. The second is that “good” religion always brings peace. 

A number of the testimonies in the book give eloquent testimony that contradicts the first oversimplification, Little points out. Moreover, religion is only one among a whole series of factors that are present in causing violent conflicts. 

The second affirmation is also unsustainable, Little adds. The experience in situations such as the warfare following the break-up of Yugoslavia demonstrate that religion, and even the clergy themselves, can inflame hostilities. 

Little then lists a series of lessons that can be drawn from the book’s case studies, some of which are: 

— Religion neither causes violence by itself, nor, by contrast, is it without influence, particularly in its extremist form, on the course and character of violence. 

— Religion is not just a source of violent conflict, but also a source of peace. 

— Proper religion exhibits a preference for pursuing peace by non-violent means and for combining the promotion of peace with the promotion of justice. 

— Religion dedicated to promoting justice and peace by peaceful means often prompts a hostile and violent response, at least in the short run. 

Faith and peace 

Looking at the religious figures presented in the book, Little comments that their beliefs provided an important foundation for the task they took on of promoting peace. They drew vision, motivation and perseverance from the theological traditions of their faith. 

Religion can also play a part in helping build institutions that will increase and sustain social harmony and civil unity. As well, nongovernmental groups and individuals can foment an environment conducive to peace and to negotiations for resolving conflicts. 

Benedict XVI addressed the relationship between religious belief and peace in his message for this year’s World Day of Peace, celebrated by the Church in Jan. 1. He termed as “unacceptable” those conceptions of God that encourage intolerance and violence (No. 10). War in God’s name is never acceptable, the Pontiff warned. 

“Let every Christian be committed to tireless peace-making and strenuous defense of the dignity of the human person and his inalienable rights,” he urged in the conclusion of his message. An appeal that should find an answer in the hearts of all believers. 



Advertisements



    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: