We Get Religion

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles

I have a confession to make: I’m losing my faith in the political process. When it comes to foreign policy, the candidates are using their bully pulpits to sermonize in the dullest possible way: all heat and no enlightenment. They preach to the converted. They disparage the unorthodox and adhere to the party platform, chapter and verse. They offer a promised land, a political nirvana, but they have no idea where the money will come from to pay for it. After all, they have no intention of reducing the military budget, of tithing a portion to social programs, of beating swords into ploughshares. I pray for the day when the scales fall from our leaders’ eyes, they expiate their political sins, and Washington is wholly transfigured.

Our language and politics, as you can see from the above example, is suffused with religious expressions and imagery. And, despite the official separation of church and state, religion has leaked inexorably into our foreign policy as well. George W. Bush frequently reflects his own religious experience when he blesses U.S. troops, speaks of an “axis of evil,” or invokes hymns in his State of the Union (“wonder-working power”). This faith-based approach to world affairs did not begin with the Bush administration. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who signed the International Religious Freedom Act into law in 1998. But more than any other recent president, Bush has viewed the world in stark theological terms of good and evil.

Some of the most trenchant critiques of this shift in U.S. foreign policy come from the religiously inclined. “America’s foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous,” writes Jim Wallis, the evangelical publisher of Sojourners magazine. “For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington,” warns Bill Moyers, a Baptist minister as well as a TV journalist. And Jimmy Carter, who alarmed the punditocracy when he first brought “born again” to the White House 30 years ago, has challenged the Bush administration’s faith-based funding, a good chunk of which has gone for overseas work. “As a traditional Baptist, I’ve always believed in separation of church and state and honored that premise when I was president, and so have all other presidents, I might say, except this one,” Carter said in the infamous interview in which he also called the current administration the worst in U.S. history.

The 19th century was the age of nations; the 20th century the age of ideologies; the 21st century is shaping up to be the age of fundamentalism. Thanks to Bush, Christian fundamentalism has attained political power in the United States. Jewish fundamentalism resists a political solution in Arab-Israeli conflict. Hindu fundamentalism has reshaped Indian politics. And Muslim fundamentalism has somehow blotted out the diversity of Islam in both politics and media. Communism is largely gone; liberalism is under attack; globalization is rampant. Fundamentalism offers a comforting set of bedrock truths at a time of flux and uncertainty.

There is often more resemblance across fundamentalisms than between fundamentalists and their less orthodox co-believers. FPIF Middle East editor Stephen Zunes was part of a delegation of religious leaders and scholars that recently met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York. “The Iranian president impressed me as someone who was sincerely devout in his religious faith, yet rather superficial in his understanding and inclined to twist his faith tradition in ways to correspond with his pre-conceived ideological positions,” Zunes writes in My Meeting with Ahmadinejad, part of our new Religion and Foreign Policy strategic focus. “He was rather evasive when it came to specific questions and was not terribly coherent, relying more on platitudes than analysis, and would tend to get his facts wrong. In short, he reminded me in many respects of our president.”

As the example of Bush and Iraq suggests, religious fundamentalists can be self-destructive in their single-minded devotion to a goal. Consider also the example of Israel. In his contribution to our new strategic focus, FPIF contributor Gershon Baskin writes that the uncompromising stance of Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territory, and their supporters in the Israeli government, is threatening the very Zionist enterprise. “An Israeli Jewish state on all of the land between the river and the sea will within one generation no longer have an Israeli Jewish majority,” Baskin observes in Neo-Zionism, Religion, and Citizenship. “Control of the non-Jewish population within those borders will only be possible through repressive means. Once the two-state solution is no longer valid, the entire international community will join the campaign to paint Israel as an apartheid state. Once that happens, it is only a matter of time before the state of Israel will have absolutely no legitimacy to exist.”

Religion is certainly not all fundamentalism and intolerance. Religious activists have been behind key progressive victories in the United States such as the Jubilee 2000 movement for debt relief for the global south. In other countries, religious activists have helped to bring down authoritarian governments and defeat inequitable free trade agreements.

No more dramatic example can be found today than in Burma, where thousands of Buddhist monks have stood up against the corrupt military junta. As FPIF contributor Kyi May Kaung argues in her contribution to our strategic focus, religion played a major role in amplifying the protests when the monks turned their begging bowls upside down. “In Theravada Buddhist belief, a monk, as the Buddha Gautama himself did, does a layperson a favor by allowing him or her to obtain merit by accepting alms from them,” she writes in Monks Versus the Military. “It is not the other way around. So when a monk or monks refuse alms from the junta, it is an act of severe moral censure.”

The Buddhist monks who are protesting against the Burmese military and the Jewish settlers who refuse to give up their land in the Occupied Territories are both filled with moral certainty. As FPIF contributor Ira Chernus argues in his strategic focus essay, however, moral certainty is not a bad thing. In the case of Americans, we simply need to find it in the right places, namely Martin Luther King and the tradition of nonviolence. “With King as our guide, we could have a distinctly American foreign policy based on the conviction of absolute moral certainty we find in the Social Gospel and nonviolence traditions,” he writes in The Theology of American Empire. “Our goal would always be to move the world one step closer to becoming a universal beloved community. We would no longer act out the myth of good versus evil. We would not demonize a bin Laden or Saddam – or a Bush or Cheney. We would recognize that when people do bad things, their actions grow out of a global network of forces that we ourselves have helped to create. King said it most eloquently: ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’” For a 60-Second Expert version of this essay, follow this link.

From Burma to Israel to the Beltway itself, FPIF’s Religion and Foreign Policy strategic focus will explore the varieties of religious experience. Over the next weeks, you’ll read about the work of faith-based activists inside the Beltway, the wide range of Islamic political forces, the current debate over Just War theory, the tensions between the Pope and the president, the reality of the “Israel Lobby,” and much more. It will be a powerful, eye-opening, and influential series. Inshallah.

Beyond Orthodoxy

Religion is found not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and the magic circles of the Wiccans. One of the most powerful religions of the last 20 years has been neo-liberalism – otherwise known as the Washington Consensus – and its practitioners have cast their spells and chanted their incantations in banks, finance ministries, and corporate boardrooms all over the world. As FPIF columnist Walden Bello points out, however, the god of neo-liberalism has failed.

In the wake of neo-liberalism’s failure, four new sects are competing for adherents: Washington Consensus Plus, neoconservative neoliberalism, neostructuralism, and global social democracy. Bello finds all four wanting. “The fundamental problem with all four successors to the Washington Consensus is their failure to root their analysis in the dynamics of capitalism as a mode of production,” he writes. “Thus they fail to see that neoliberal globalization is not a new stage of capitalism but a desperate and unsuccessful effort to overcome the crises of overaccumulation, overproduction, and stagnation that have overtaken the central capitalist economies since the mid-seventies.”

On the other side of the economic spectrum, the landless rural workers movement in Brazil has drawn moral certainty from the same sources as the Burmese monks and Martin Luther King, Jr.: non-violent direct action. What started out as 400 families has swelled into a 1.5 million member movement that marches, blocks roads, and occupies government buildings to press for land reform in a country where a third of the population is desperately poor. “However, the most commonly used and widely known practice by the MST is direct occupation of land, and the establishment thereafter of an ‘encampment’ on the property,” writes FPIF contributor Patrick Quirk in How to Be a Good Friend. “Organized by MST leaders, varying groups of families (numbering from the tens to thousands) mobilize en masse to first occupy and then cultivate unused tracts of arable land.”

Nukes and Poppies

The United States signed a nuclear agreement with India over the summer that essentially locks in the latter’s status as a nuclear power but without requiring membership in either the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Japan is in a quandary: support its ally, the United States, or support its principles, namely nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Japan is getting pressure from both India and the United States to support the deal. FPIF contributor Masako Toki advises Tokyo not to abandon its principles. “Despite this pressure,” she writes in Will Japan Support India’s Nukes?, “it is in Japan’s interest–and the world’s interest–to treat the U.S.-India nuclear deal with a degree of skepticism.”

South Korea is also grappling with a nuclear conundrum. It supports the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, the focus of ongoing six-party negotiations, but it also is eager to push forward with economic engagement with its northern neighbor. In their upcoming summit, Korean leaders Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Jong Il will perform a potentially awkward two-step around these questions. In addition, there is considerable controversy in both the United States and South Korea over this summit: because of its timing and its potential impact on the upcoming South Korean presidential elections. But, as I write in South Korea as Transformer, the summit must instead be understood “in the context of the much larger role that South Korea can and must play in transforming the region: negotiating the large power differential between the United States and North Korea.”

Finally, in Afghanistan, poppy production and Taliban support are both rising. Washington proposes to spray the poppy fields out of existence. FPIF contributors Michael Shank and Shukria Dellawar disagree. “Already farmers are turning to the Taliban for crop protection, a trend likely to increase if the United States proceeds as planned,” they write in An Opium Alternative for Afghanistan. “Eradicating farmers’ primary means of income simply forces them to look elsewhere. And Taliban recruiters eagerly stand by.”

FPIF, October 1, 2007

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