Quantcast

Rational Actors: Secular Fallacies

In 2003, Army General William (Jerry) Boykin became a global cause célèbre. Boykin, as it was revealed, would travel around the evangelical church circuit delivering a fiery lecture. Dressed in full uniform, he would open with an encomium to George Bush. Why is this man in the White House? Because “God put him there.” And who is America fighting against? Osama bin Laden? Hardly. America is engaged in a battle for end-times, a “spiritual battle,” “a battle for our soul,” and the enemy is “a guy called Satan.”

As Gary Wills points out, Boykin was hardly an irrelevance, some retired officer who had wandered off into Dr. Strangelove-land. He was deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, presiding over America’s hunt for bin Laden. And this was no momentary lapse. In Mogadishu a decade earlier, Boykin claimed that he “could feel the presence of evil . . . in a place that has rejected God.” He had a habit of arguing that America was destined for victory in the war against Islam because “our God” is bigger than “their God.”

Word of Boykin’s activities ignited a firestorm, with liberals demanding he be sacked and the Christian right rallying loudly to his cause. Among the ranks of the former, the Bush administration’s decision to keep the general in place confirmed suspicions that the Iraq War was one of religion. Wills offered up General Boykin as proof of his thesis that Bush was chasing a “faith-based foreign policy.”

The Boykin affair offers an especially vivid example of the confusion that reigns where religion and foreign policy intersect, which they do quite routinely these days. Opinion elites have long been accustomed to ignoring religious belief altogether. This blinded them to one of the most important developments of the past forty years, what Gilles Kepel has called “le revanche de dieu.” So, lately—and particularly in the aftermath of September 11—these same elites have been overcompensating for their past error, at once exaggerating and caricaturing the role of religion in world affairs. The twin errors are both fruits of the same poisoned tree: the foreign policy establishment’s refusal, or simple inability, to take faith seriously.



The roots of this tree reach back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Europe’s wars of religion proved so bloody that the continent’s rulers devised an elaborate set of rules to keep faith out of politics. William Lecky described the effect on statesmanship in his classic History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe:

Wars that were once regarded as simple duties became absolutely impossible. Alliances that were once deemed atrocious sins became habitual and unchallenged. That which had long been the centre around which all other interests revolved, receded and disappeared, and a profound change in the actions of mankind indicated a profound change in their belief.

To be sure, new ideologies arose to discombobulate the rational politics that Lecky admired. But these were secular ideologies: fascism, Nazism, Communism—each sprang, in its own way, from the secular imagination. There was no question of religion recapturing its earlier role as the magnet that organized international affairs.

During this long religious cease-fire, diplomats became thoroughly secularized. Their aloofness to religion was sustained and abetted by everything they absorbed from the higher intellectual culture. Marx dismissed religion as a mere epiphenomenon of material interests. Weber preached the “disenchantment of the world.” Freud approached religion as a collective neurosis. The avant-garde preached personal liberation from clerical bonds. Those statesmen who preserved an interest in religion regarded it as a purely private affair—rather like a taste for bondage—and certainly not something that ought to be featured in their policy calculations.

This mindset is now hopelessly antiquated. Religion is today on display everywhere—in the overflowing megachurches of American suburbs, in the revival of beards and veils in Islamic communities, in the daily headlines of every newspaper. As religion writer Scott Thomas has remarked, “We live in a world that is not supposed to exist.” Nor is there any reason to assert that this religious revival has played itself out. America’s next great war may be against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington may be forced to intervene in Pakistan, where Islamic fundamentalists have declared themselves bent on destabilizing the state and acquiring its nuclear arsenal. Look at the world’s flashpoints, and in most of them you can see the fires of religion. For that matter, look closely at an outwardly stable regime such as China’s, where you can make out a religious revival teeming just under the surface. By 2050, the People’s Republic could be at once the world’s largest Christian country and the world’s largest Muslim country.

The older struggles, too, have been stoked and given new life by religious passion. The conflict over Israel began mostly as a secular one: many of the founders of the Jewish state were secular Zionists, and Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization was a national liberation movement whose membership included Christians and atheists. Today, Hamas’s “Army of God” battles Jewish settlers who claim their own God-given duty to guard the land they occupy, even as Christian Zionists lobby America to deepen its involvement in the conflict.

And, yet, despite all this, and long after it became clear that the turbulent priests had returned to the public square, Washington’s diplomats and think-tankers remained locked in a Westphalian box—obsessed with the balance of power or the pursuit of economic interests or the clash of secular creeds. Madeleine Albright claims that, during her adult years, “I cannot remember any leading American diplomat (even the born-again Christian Jimmy Carter) speaking in-depth about the role of religion in shaping the world.” In the index of Henry Kissinger’s 900-page magnum opus, Diplomacy, the troublesome word “religion” does not appear once.



In the aftermath of 9/11, however, we arguably have over-corrected—not underestimating the role of religion, as in years past, but exaggerating it. Exaggerating it in the sense of giving it undue emphasis, of turning it into a cartoon. The very commentators who not that long ago were heedless of the role of religion and were theologically illiterate now see it everywhere (and remain theologically illiterate). American foreign policy is driven by a fundamentalist clique; the Arab-Israeli conflict is grounded in eschatology rather than geography; the world teeters on the edge of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity—the panelists at the Council on Foreign Relations have their lines down pat.

The penchant for caricature may be gleaned from some of the more hysterical assessments of George Bush’s foreign policy, particularly his decision to invade Iraq. Jonathan Raban claims that “the greatest military power in history has shackled its deadly hardware to the rhetoric of fundamentalist Christianity.” Kevin Phillips, a renegade Republican, describes America as “a high-technology, gospel spreading superpower.” Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official in the administration of George H. W. Bush, laments that the younger Bush “truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis.” Such arguments proceed in the way of all caricatures—picking from certain aspects of the real world and exaggerating them beyond reason.

There is, to be sure, no shortage of material for the caricaturists. Merely listen to Bush prophesizing about the battle between good and evil. Survey the people around him, from Condoleezza Rice, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, to Michael Gerson, a heart-on-the-sleeve evangelical. Or examine the administration’s power base in Washington. In the Senate prior to the 2006 mid-term election, all six top Republican leaders earned ratings of 100 percent from the Christian Coalition. Theological conservatives accounted for 60 percent of Bush’s vote in 2004. Duly energized, their most visible spokesmen were given to flights of incendiary rhetoric. Franklin Graham, Billy’s son and an honored guest at Bush’s inauguration, has described Islam as “wicked” and “violent.” “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans,” he argues. Jerry Falwell added that “Muhammad was a terrorist . . . a violent man, a man of war.”

But is there really any evidence that Bush has allowed religion, much less the likes of Falwell, to guide his foreign policy? Bush’s most powerful advisors, Dick Cheney most notably, see the world in terms of national rather than spiritual struggles. There was hardly a shortage of earthly reasons for America’s intervention in Iraq, from worries about deadly weapons to concerns about oil supplies to the belief that democratization could provide a long-term salve for the region. Bush, moreover, has no reluctance about stiff-arming his evangelical backers when expediency requires it. He endorsed China’s admission to the World Trade Organization over the protestations of evangelicals. He briskly contested Franklin Graham’s description of Islam as an “evil religion,” despite the fact that Graham’s father had brought Bush to God. Instead, Bush made a point of loudly and ostentatiously pronouncing Islam a “religion of peace.”

Bush, indeed, can be surprisingly blunt about his fellow parishioners. Bob Woodward describes the frantic scene inside the White House on election night, 2004, when the outcome seemed to hinge on the result in Ohio. The man in charge of certifying the tally was Kenneth Blackwell, a leading social conservative. “I’m the president of the United States,” Bush fumed, “waiting for a secretary of state who is a nut.” Likewise, authors James Moore and Wayne Slater describe a visit Bush paid to a Boeing plant in Washington state during the 2000 election campaign. Bush stood in front of a wide-bodied airplane bound for China and proclaimed his fealty to the principles of free trade. A Texan reporter from a hotbed of Christian activism north of Austin joked that the candidate’s stand might cost him the religious vote. “Oh yeah,” Bush replied. “You only think that because you live around all those wackos.”

In fact, when it comes to the “War on Terror,” the supposedly faith-based Bush administration has been mostly blind to the centrality of faith. In its obsession with state sponsors of terrorism, and in its assumption that the cure of democracy may wean people off radical Islam, the administration diminished the importance of religion to devastating effect. Holy warriors, after all, have no need for state sponsors. Democratization can easily play into the hands of popular religious movements. In the Iraqi elections of 2005, the Shiite alliance won almost half the seats in parliament. In the first Palestinian elections in a decade, Hamas overwhelmed the secular Fatah party. The administration managed to ignore religion even as Iraq was erupting into a religious war. When Canon Andrew P. B. White, an Anglican clergyman known as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” urged the Coalition Provisional Authority to pay close attention, he was told that “Iraq was a secular nation so religion should only be thought about after water and electricity were dealt with.”

Inevitably, the critical tendency to overstate the role of religion in American policy deliberations is at its most extreme when the subject is Israel. It is an axiom of a certain school of foreign policy analysis that the Christian right has a fierce grip on American policy towards the Jewish state. Again, there is plenty of material for the caricaturists. Evangelicals sympathize with Israel. Some of them even claim this sympathy derives from theology—Israel, in their view, being the scene of the second coming of Christ. John Hagee, a Texas televangelist who believes that supporting Israel qualifies as a “biblical imperative,” founded Christians United for Israel. In July 2006, he brought 3,500 people to Washington, DC to cheer Israel’s assault on Hezbollah.

Evangelical interest in Israel has genuinely deepened: witness the booming business in transporting American Christians to the Holy Land. Israeli officials estimate that, of the two million Americans who visit Israel every year, Christian pilgrims account for more than half. But does this really explain America’s sympathies? Solidarity with a nation of settlers, identification with a besieged democracy, admiration for Israel’s leaders—Americans have their secular reasons for standing with the Jewish state. Support for Israel might be pronounced among evangelicals, but non-evangelical Americans, too, say they sympathize with Israelis over Palestinians—by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, to be precise.

Thus, secular Democrats are typically no less “pro-Israel” than religious Republicans. During Israel’s battering of Lebanon, a chorus of leading Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, the House leader, and Harry Reid, the Senate leader, demanded that Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, recant his criticism of Israel or have his invitation to address Congress revoked. By the same token, support by Christian Americans for Israel hardly counts as universal. From 2000 to 2004, 37 percent of the statements that mainline Protestant churches issued on human rights focused on and were critical of Israel. In 2004, the Presbyterian Church even passed a resolution calling for limited divestment from companies doing business with Israel.

True, the very words “Bush” and “Israel” summon up extreme responses. But distortions can be found in nearly everything written these days about religious America. Even otherwise scrupulous writers routinely lump devout Americans together in a single mass and then conflate theirs with the opinions of the extreme fringe. Quote Pat Robertson fulminating about this or that subject and all believers become suspect.

Yet, as it is over everything else, religious America is profoundly divided over foreign policy. Many leading religious figures—including the leader of Bush’s own Methodist church—opposed the invasion of Iraq. Jimmy Carter, one of George Bush’s fellow evangelicals, is one of the president’s most persistent and vituperative critics. The split extends even to the “religious right,” which, as Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, finds its ranks divided between a minority of fundamentalists and a much larger group of evangelicals. Both agree on the literal truth of the Bible. But evangelicals take a less bellicose approach to the international scene. “Good works” through foreign aid and campaigns against the sex industry tend to be the norm; demanding the execution of foreign dictators does not.

The fraudulent impression of American evangelicals as a collection of Pat Robertson clones has contributed mightily to hyperbole and even hysteria overseas. Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute for International Relations, worries that “the combination of religion and nationalism in America is frightening. We feel betrayed by God and by nationalism, which is why we are building the European Union as a barrier to religious warfare.” Francois Heisbourg, the director for the Foundation of Strategic Research in Paris, opines that “the biblical references in politics, the division of the world between good and evil, these are things that [Europeans] simply don’t get. In a number of areas, it seems to me that we are no longer part of the same civilization.”



In one sense, this may be true: Americans view religious practices beyond their shores with no more nuance than the foreigners staring back at them view the United States. This parallel sin of caricature finds a ready expression in the “clash of civilizations” thesis. It is hardly surprising that Samuel Huntington’s argument has won a large number of converts since September 11 (Huntington’s observation that the “borders of Islam are bloody” looks especially prescient). In the name of Islam, jihadists do wage a holy war that sanctions suicide bombings and the mass slaughter of innocents. They do identify the enemy as “Jews and Crusaders.” Some sections of the Islamic world are tediously disposed to fits of fury over “insults to Islam.”

Alas, we have responded, if not in kind, certainly out of all proportion. In World War IV, Norman Podhoretz argues that America has been thrust into a long, drawn-out war with radical Islam. In America Alone, Mark Steyn cautions that America will be exactly that as European elites surrender to their Muslim populations. Nor is the conviction that we have been engaged in a war with religion confined to the musty precincts of the right. Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist, argues that “it is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” His argument resonates broadly. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in 2006 found that 46 percent of Americans harbor a negative view of Islam. The proportion of Americans who believe that Islam promotes violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled over the past six years. A Pew Research Center survey finds that about a third of Americans say Islam, more than any other religion, encourages violence among its adherents.

But the clashing civilizations in question tend in fact to be highly diverse. Oil-rich Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have little in common with impoverished and desolate countries such as Mali and Yemen. Islamic republics such as Iran do not share a worldview with secular regimes such as Egypt’s. Iran and Iraq boast a long history of rivalry and warfare. The West, too, hardly unites around religion. Americans take matters of faith much more literally than their European cousins. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that faith plays an important role in their lives compared with 28 percent of Britons and an even lower percentage among Frenchmen. In fact, hostility to America’s global leadership is just as pronounced in Europe as it is in the Muslim world: 68 percent of Germans, 67 percent of French, and 52 percent of Britons disapprove of U.S. leadership; 62 percent of Jordanians and 53 percent of Turks feel the same way.

Yet looking out at the world, the likes of Podhoretz and Steyn make exactly the same mistake as the caricaturists of evangelical America—lumping divergent peoples together and then tagging them all with the opinions of a zealous fringe. The world’s 1.2 billion Muslims span five continents (only one in five Muslims lives in the Arab world). They are deeply divided between Sunnis (who make up 85 percent of the Muslim world) and Shias (who make up 15 percent). Both are themselves riven by ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian differences. Beyond that, there is a world of cultural difference between, say, fierce Wahhabi fundamentalists and languid Indonesian Muslims.

A recent survey of Muslim opinion by Gallup, culled from face-to-face interviews with tens of thousands of people over the past six years, demonstrates plainly that the majority of Muslims view the world through an entirely different lens than the extremists who kill in their name. It is not just that majorities endorse democracy in the abstract. They also support the requisites of liberal governance. Huge majorities say that, if they were designing a constitution, they would guarantee freedom of speech (93 percent in Egypt, 93 percent in Iran, 90 percent in Indonesia). Sizable majorities believe that women should have the same legal rights as men (85 percent in Iran, about 90 percent in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Lebanon, even 61 percent in Saudi Arabia). Further, the survey reveals no correlation between radicalization and piety. The proportion of Muslims with radical views who say that religion plays an important role in their lives barely differs from the percentage of moderates who make an identical claim. There is, in fact, no significant difference in rates of mosque attendance between radicals and moderates. (Recall that the 9/11 hijackers enjoyed visits to strip clubs and porn shops.) The only telling distinction between radicals and non-radicals relates to their political worldviews: radicals believe passionately that the West means to dominate and exploit them.

Again, caricature has become the enemy of sound policy. Speechifying about a “clash of civilizations” makes it difficult for Western policymakers to register the divisions between Sunnis and Shias. It makes it nearly impossible to win hearts and minds among the Muslim majority. And it bolsters bin Laden’s claim that he speaks for those under siege by the West. The bias for oversimplification hardly comes as a surprise after September 11. But it is just as surely misguided.



In truth, and more often than not, a religious dimension actually enlightens statecraft. In the U.S., religious activists have decisively influenced policies, from foreign aid to bans on sex trafficking to global campaigns against AIDS. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, has probably generated more legislation on humanitarian issues than any other senator, routinely collaborating with liberal Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and the late Paul Wellstone. Former White House speechwriter (and evangelical) Michael Gerson arguably did as much as anyone to persuade George Bush to allot $15 billion to the combating of AIDS in Africa. Bush turned to Gerson during a discussion of the issue and asked his aide’s opinion. “Mr. President, if this is possible—and we don’t do it—we will never be forgiven,” came the reply. There was a brief pause, and Bush bellowed, “That’s Gerson being Gerson!” Then he approved the plan.

Also contrary to popular wisdom, religious activists more often bring peace than foment war. “Faith is a source of conflict,” reads a sign at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in the City of London. But it goes on to say that faith may be “a resource to transform conflict.” The recent peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, was cemented only when two preachers from opposite sides of the religious divide joined together in condemnation of the bloodshed (appropriately enough, the Ethulberga Centre was built in a church destroyed in 1993 by Irish terrorists). The two religious leaders, Roy Magee, a Protestant, and Alex Reid, a Catholic, were acquainted with hard-line terrorists through their congregations, and they exerted their moral sway to induce each side to the negotiating table. Reid, in particular, brokered a momentous summit that brought together John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein.

The pattern plays out across the globe. In West Africa, Muhammad Ashafa, a leading imam, and James Wuye, a Christian pastor, have, between themselves, outdone the efforts of all others in dampening tensions in Nigeria. Both men began their lives as religious warriors. Wuye lost a hand in battle. Ashafa lost two brothers. Transformed into peacemakers, they co-founded the Interfaith Mediation Center, an organization that tries to, and does, quell religious strife. When other regions of Nigeria were torn asunder by the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad printed in Danish newspapers, Ashaya and Wuye kept their own completely still.

Here, too, a little-known Washington-based group called the Fellowship has played an intriguing role in fostering reconciliation among the faiths. Douglas Coe, the publicity-averse leader of the Fellowship, has been dubbed a “stealth Billy Graham,” his organization hailed as an “underground State Department.” Coe says that the Fellowship intends to create a worldwide “family of friends” by extolling the word of Jesus to those in power, and he almost certainly counts as the world’s most successful spiritual networker.

Coe has been a close friend to a succession of American presidents. He functions as a sort of spiritual guide to leading Democrats and Republicans. He also boasts an astonishing array of connections with foreign leaders, many of whom regularly pay visits to his fellowship’s Virginia mansion. Odd as it may seem, these connections have quieted numerous crises abroad. When James Baker, an active member of the Fellowship, became one of the first Western diplomats to visit post-Communist Albania, the country’s foreign minister, Muhamet Kapllani, took his hand and said, “I greet you in the name of Doug Coe.” In 2001, the Fellowship arranged a secret meeting in Virginia, bringing together warring leaders Joseph Kabala, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. More recently, the group has helped shepherd peace talks in the Sudan.



All of this will be news for the typical U.S. policymaker. Most remain profoundly ignorant about, uninterested by, and inattentive to religion. In 2005, Gary Bald, then the FBI’s counter-terrorism chief, drew a blank when asked, during a legal deposition, whether he understood the difference between Sunnis and Shias. In his defense, he added that such expertise “wasn’t as important as being a good manager.” This bathetic episode inspired Jeff Stein, of Congressional Quarterly, to conduct an exhaustive study of what exactly official Washington knew about Islam. He discovered that most of the officials he interviewed, from members of Congress who oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies to the members of the agencies being overseen, were wholly clueless. Willie Hulon, the head of the FBI’s new national security branch, acknowledged that it was important to recognize the distinction between Sunni and Shia. He then misidentified Iran as a Sunni country.

Nor do America’s ongoing culture wars conduce to a balanced view of the role of religion in foreign policy. Liberal culture warriors such as the New York Times’ Frank Rich cannot help themselves when they reduce devout Americans to war-mongering homophobic anthropoids. And conservative culture warriors such as George Weigel cannot keep themselves from exaggerating and sensationalizing the rift between Christianity and Islam. American legalism hardly furthers the cause of sensible policy, either. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has found that some diplomats refuse to engage with religious issues because they fear “being personally attacked—via litigation or public opprobrium—for possibly violating the Establishment Clause.”

The foreign policy elite would do well to overcome its squeamishness about religion, and to do so quickly. U.S. foreign policy has already suffered numerous setbacks on this score. We have learned to our cost that faith and foreign policy can be an explosive mix. Surely, one way to prevent further explosions would be to pay religion the modest and necessary compliment of taking it seriously.

Adrian Wooldridge is Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist.

OG Image: