‘Never mix religion and politics’. An old adage that Madeleine Albright clearly forgot in her 2006 memoirs The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs. As the first female Secretary of State (1997 to 2001), Albright was uniquely positioned to recognise the changing place of religion in international affairs. In more than one way – the millennium was a turning point – religion was back – and in some surprising places. For much of her diplomatic career, like many of her generation, Albright had tried to ‘keep God and religion out of foreign policy’. But by the end of her time in the State Department, Albright recognised that religion was playing a larger and larger role in world events. Yet she and her fellow diplomats were not equipped to read the religious backdrop to numerous foreign policy challenges:
‘As Secretary of State you have all kinds of advisers — economic advisers and arms control advisers and climate change advisers… it would be good to have some religious advisers too’.
The Mighty and the Almighty was followed by various attention grabbing titles all expanding Albright’s thesis – God is Back, Taming the Gods and God’s Century are just a few. For much of the twentieth century, students of the enlightenment predicted that the death of religion was imminent. Generations of western journalists, scholars, public servants and diplomats were trained for a world where religion was moving ever closer to the exit. It was increasingly absent from public life – and had no place in the development of policy. The persistent religiousness of the US was considered the exception that proved the rule.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century the world has changed – or so it seems. Not only has religion failed to die, it appears to have revived. Micklethwait and Wooldridge in God is Back conclude: ‘On the street and in the corridors of power, religion is surging worldwide. From Russia to Turkey to India, nations that swore off faith in the last century – or even tried to stamp it out – are now run by avowedly religious leaders…The global rise of faith will have a dramatic and far-reaching impact on our century.’
The resurgence of religion in the public sphere presents a profound challenge to the much vaunted secularisation theories of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc. In their book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, Toft, Philpott and Shah argue that ‘it has been driven by religious people’s desire for freedom – not just freedom as individuals to practice and express their faith, but freedom for their communities to assemble, worship, publicly profess their beliefs and programmes and in case of some religions to convert others to their faith.’ Just like earlier ages of empire and the invention of the printing press, globalisation and the revolutionary changes in communication technology have facilitated a worldwide expansion of religious affiliation.
Secularisation has not just been a theory – it has been the modus operandi for two generations of western diplomats. The resurgence of religion challenges foreign policy makers to be more empathetic to religious actors; to get under their skin and to understand their aspirations and motivations more fully. Secular diplomats may also need to reflect on their own assumptions and values. There are as many traditions within secularism as there are within the different religions. And it is not necessarily neutral or benign as the events of the twentieth century proved so painfully.
At the same time, globalisation has brought the different religions into closer proximity – sometimes in conflict and sometimes in cooperation. The challenge for twenty-first century international religious actors is to be less defensive of their own interests and more supportive of the needs and aspirations of ‘the other’ – to speak authentically for the common good.
The news that God is back is only news in Europe. For the rest of the globe he never went away. The religiousness of the US wasn’t an anomaly. The US was behaving like the rest of the world.
But even Europe is slowly waking up to being religious and secular at the same time. Across the continent religious symbols – the cross, the burka and the minaret – have prompted heated political debate. And despite itself, the embryonic European External Action Service (EEAS) has also needed to factor religion into its soft power approach. In February, the Foreign Affairs Council committed itself to linking cooperation with partner countries for the promotion of religious tolerance, and to working with the UN to support intercultural and inter-religious dialogue in a spirit of openness, engagement and mutual understanding. Turkey’s recent decree offering to return property to minority religions confirms that the authenticity of freedom of religion is a live part of accession negotiations.
But factoring religion into foreign policy is more than ensuring a robust approach to freedom of religion or belief. Religion can be a powerful player in issues of climate change, economic development, health, land usage, social cohesion and conflict prevention. We ignore it at our peril. In his recent interview with the UK Foreign Secretary, the Archbishop of Canterbury quizzed William Hague on Libya, Bin Laden, and the role of moral values in foreign policy. The need to support religious minorities has emerged as a key theme in current UK foreign policy. The interview recognised the religious backdrop to events in Africa, China, the Middle East and Pakistan. But even more could have been said.
The active presence of religion in the international sphere in the second decade of the third millennium raises numerous practical and policy questions – many of them profoundly complex and highly contentious. For the EEAS and most foreign ministries, there is a need to develop the horizontal capacity to handle religion across the piste. Could the French Foreign Office be leading the way with the creation of a Religions Team in their Policy Planning Directorate?
This year, Wilton Park – set up in 1946 by Winston Churchill to discuss the difficult topics of the day – launched its new dialogue theme, ‘Faith, Religion and the International Public Sphere’. With its English country house surroundings, Wilton Park aims to provide a neutral space to bring together ministers, diplomats and religious representatives to wrestle with complex policy issues where religion is a factor. Given the strategic nature of its portfolio, Wilton Park plans to identify faith factors across a range of conferences, ensuring that discussions involving religion are not just restricted to freedom of religion or belief but contribute to wider policy debate.
Events in the first decade of the twenty-first century suggest that the old adage ‘Never mix religion and politics’ betrays an inadequate understanding of human behaviour and aspiration. Whether western analysts and policy makers like it or not, they do mix – sometimes for good, often not. The challenge for diplomats now is to catch up with events, to enhance their capacity to read this most potent sign of the times – religion – and to find ways to harness the power of religion and religious leaders to work for a global peace and prosperity which is proving so elusive.