- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 (UPI) — Many think tank experts believe that the U.S. foreign policy establishment's continuing dismissal of religion as a major driving force in global political affairs is seriously limiting U.S. efforts to develop effective strategic solutions to world problems.

"They (foreign policy analysts and policy-makers) are absolutely stumped by the reality of a vast majority of the world that thinks in religious terms," Marc Gopin, a senior associate in the preventive diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told United Press International.

"Even though they acknowledge religion as a challenge, policy-makers see religion as a problem, never as a solution," he said. "In doing that, they are basically cutting themselves off from a large portion of humanity."

According to several think tank analysts, the problem is that the policy community — especially in the United States — is overwhelmingly less religious than the public as a whole, and tends to view policy in completely secular terms.

John Hulsman, a research fellow in European affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that the secularization of foreign policy leads to a potential misunderstanding of a key component through which many people view the world.

"Most foreign policy analysts come from a certain group of people who are not as religious as the average American," said Hulsman. "If you don't feel something in your bones, you are not likely to understand it as well."

Kenneth R. Weinstein, vice president and director of the Washington office of the conservative Hudson Institute, said that although there is a huge disconnect between policy analysts and American culture in general, the divide over religion has shrunk in recent years.

"I agree that policy analysts themselves tend to be more secular and divorced from American culture, and American religious culture, to a large degree," he said. "But in recent years we have seen more monographs on topics like religion and health, and the transformative power of religion is discussed on both the right and left."

Nevertheless, Weinstein said, the divide continues to have a negative impact because it causes certain people — particularly among the traditional foreign policy elite — to underestimate the importance of religion as a political force.

"It is something that the policy community has to be more attuned to," he said.

Gopin, a rabbi and an expert on region and conflict resolution, said that the overwhelming secularization of the American foreign policy establishment undermines its influence because it pursues policies at odds with the wants or needs of many in society.

But Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, said it is prudent for foreign policy to be driven by primarily secularist ideals.

"There is not a lot of religious guidance in terms of foreign policy," Bandow told UPI. "I think there is a line between recognizing what causes countries and people to act and adjusting your foreign policy to it, and developing your foreign policy ideas on religious considerations."

He added that although analysts should always keep societal principles and ideals in mind when developing foreign policy, there is a danger in taking a particularly religious view toward policy problems.

"You very much want to maintain a religious or a moral basis when you think about foreign policy, but when you make practical policy, you want to make sure you are tied to the real world," said Bandow.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, agreed that although there are general problems with the foreign policy community's understanding of religion, moral ideals still sometimes guide policy development.

"I think there is a fold who are within the policy-making apparatus that have a moral frame of reference, and I think religious ideas, or at least moral ideas, do play a role," he said.

However, Sirico said that policy-makers have the tendency to turn religion into a political instrument.

"I think that policy-makers tend to have their own ideas about what policies need to be made," said Sirico. "They look for religious people in groupings to endorse, and then gain some support for, their own preconceived policy conclusions."

He added that some issues also naturally lend themselves to a religious sensibility or a morally based examination.

For example, recent debates within the policy community over whether the United States should invade Iraq to topple dictator Saddam Hussein have been framed in the context of just war doctrine, a moral theory based primarily on religious as well as philosophical constructs.

Gopin said that a basic lack of understanding of religion also leads policy-makers to confuse all religious values with the ideas put forth by the extremist or power-hungry clerics of various religious sects. He said that such clerics are very dangerous because they use religious symbols and metaphors to build up power among the miserable members of society, a population that can be easily manipulated.

He added that although these fundamentalist leaders do not represent the general beliefs of their religion, they gain followers because they know how to speak in the language of the downtrodden in the ghettos of Cairo, Egypt or the poorer parts of the United States.

These leaders use their power to dominate the public space with their radical ideals, and to drive more moderate forces of religion out of the debate, he said.

Gopin also said he believes the policy community in the democratized world must recognize this problem by honoring those religious leaders who promote democratic values and bringing them into the discussion over relevant policy matters.

"The most important step is to search for your allies, those religious people in each community that are committed to democracy and human rights," said Gopin. "(But) until policy-makers can speak in a language that the people can understand and appreciate, they will not have them on their side."

However, Sirico, a Catholic friar, said that policy analysts and policy-makers need only a good understanding of religion, not necessarily to follow its tenets.

"I think they (policy experts) have to have a theological awareness," he said. "I don't think policy as such needs to advance a doctrinaire point of view."

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