Note: This article originally appeared in the HuffingtonPost (UK) on 4 Sept. 2015.
Transatlantic cooperation on issues of religion and foreign policy can help to advance American and British interests–and strengthen the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries. That’s an underlying argument in a new report, Toward Religion-Attentive Foreign Policy: A Report on an Anglo-American Dialogue.
The report, which we co-edited, highlights the significant progress on religious engagement on both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas both the US State Department and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) previously had reputations for indifference toward religion for being institutionally averse to religion, times have changed. Both foreign ministries have had to jettison simplistic theories of secularisation and adjust their structures and strategies in order to promote their interests in a stubbornly and pervasively religious world.
Analysing religious dynamics and engaging religious actors are simply no longer optional. As the report argues, “in a world where religious ideas and institutions are increasingly salient factors in politics–for good and ill–all diplomats must ‘do God’ whether or not they believe in one.”
Whether it’s protecting religious minorities from ISIS and its extremist allies, empowering faith-based development organisations, or partnering to with religious communities to address issues like climate change and human trafficking, the opportunities abound for doing good by ‘doing God.’
The report offers 15 policy messages for the how the US and UK can enhance their religious engagement. It recommends that American and British diplomats should, for instance, leverage religion expertise that already exists in their diplomatic services, recognise that ‘religion’ means more than Islam, and know when not to engage with religious issues. They should look for ‘lived’ as well as ‘official’ religion, and be aware of problematic labels–such as ‘radical’, ‘extremist’, ‘fundamentalist’, and even less emotive terms like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, and ‘moderate’–that are often underpinned by a politics of power and can be interpreted in very different ways.
These and the report’s other policy messages are the stuff of everyday business for the numerous officials who serve in the US State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs and its Office of International Religious Freedom. These two offices, which are both led by very senior officials, have a combined staff of over 40 people.
By contrast, the Foreign Office has many officials whose portfolios touch on religion-related issues, but the bureaucracy does not have a single person working full-time on religious freedom or religious engagement.
Our report, which summarises the points raised at our British Council-funded conferences with officials and scholars in Washington and London, thus recommends that the Foreign Office appoint a Director of Religion and Global Issues, with a small supporting staff. This new office would serve as “a single point of contact on issues of religion and foreign policy, would contribute to the development and delivery of improved training provision, and would help to socialise religious engagement across the FCO.”
The remit of such an office would include, but not be limited to, the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. In its Manifesto, the Government promised to “stand up for the freedom of people of all religions–and non-religious people.” This is a commendable and critically important foreign policy goal.
But the British and American participants at our Washington and London conferences indicated that increased attention to religious freedom is not enough. Religion is a cross-cutting issue that intersects with a wide range of global challenges. As the report notes, “religious freedom is a human right, but religion is more than just a human rights issue.”
Indeed, this is partly why the US State Department has both a religious freedom office and an office on religion and global affairs writ large. The Canadians combined both functions in their Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development. A growing number of European foreign ministries, and the European External Action Service, are also expanding their capacity both in religious freedom promotion and religious engagement.
In addition to equipping the British diplomatic service, the FCO’s Director of Religion and Global Issues would also be the clear UK counterpart to North American and European officials with similar mandates.
This isn’t about making foreign policy more ‘religious.’ The report cautions, “Religious engagement is not the preserve of officials who are personally religious, nor does it entail the undue privileging of religious factors in analysis.”
Rather it’s about becoming more religion-attentive in order to be more effective in advancing Anglo-American interests in a highly religious world.
Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat now serving as the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies.
Jane Lindsay was a senior policy adviser in the Cabinet Office before taking a career break from the Civil Service in to complete her PhD at the University of Leeds.
Emma Tomalin is a senior lecturer in religious studies and director of the Centre on Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds.