Closing the God gap abroad

UPI POY 2008 - News and Features

Earlier in the week I linked to the Washington Post story headlined "'God gap' impedes U.S. foreign policy, task force says." Some readers will be delighted to see that it's bylined by Godbeat fave David Waters. Here's the lede:

American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and "uncompromising Western secularism" that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The council's 32-member task force, which included former government officials and scholars representing all major faiths, delivered its report to the White House on Tuesday. The report warns of a serious "capabilities gap" and recommends that President Obama make religion "an integral part of our foreign policy."

We're frequently talking about the need for journalists to understand how religion plays a major role in foreign affairs. I thought it was interesting that, according to this report, it's not just the media but diplomats and foreign policy wonks who could heed the same advice. I was curious what readers thought of the article so I did something that is almost always a bad idea: I visited the story's comments page. Sifting through the subliterate rantings and ravings of the masses there, it became apparent that many readers thought that the Council wanted the United States to promote Christianity.

I thought the article clearly explained simply that the Council wants U.S. foreign policy leaders and operatives to understand how religion is important in other countries. And I've yet to see a Washington Post story where the comments indicated that readers understood it very well. Anyway, it seems obvious that even though our country has no established religion, the same doesn't hold for other countries and foreign organizations.

But this other story I read on the report could also be misconstrued, I think. Here's how the piece, from CNN, begins:

Religion is a growing factor in world affairs, but the U.S. government tends to view it through the lens of counterterrorism. That's the conclusion of a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

I don't think the second clause of that first sentence makes much sense. And I don't think that it's fair to say that the first sentence is the conclusion of the study. The Post piece goes through the recommendations from the study and gives a different perspective, as evidenced from the excerpt above.

The CNN piece notes that the report discusses some of the positive world trends being led by religious groups. But it also includes these paragraphs:

"Religion has played a negative role in U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially in relations with the Muslim world," notes Thomas Wright, executive director of studies for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the report's project director.

The strategy of engaging religious communities is not trying to circumvent the First Amendment, observed Wright.

"The separation of church and state is vital and must be preserved in foreign as well as domestic policy," Wright said.

I think that there's an issue with the set up to these quotes. I could use more assistance in understanding what Wright means by the phrase "negative role." And I think that the second point -- about separation of church and state -- is fantastic to include as a clarifying matter but could be further clarified for the average reader.

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