Report: U.S. Foreign Officers Need Religious Education

The U.S. government needs to enhance the religious literacy of its foreign service officers and diplomats so that they can better address foreign policy challenges, a report advised.

Task force members of the report "Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy," sponsored by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said for too long the government has ignored the fact that religion plays a large role in the lives of the people its officers interact with overseas.

It is imperative that representatives of America engage with local religious communities and receive training on how to relate to these religious groups in order to fulfill its foreign interests, the task force said.

"The reality is that religious people and faith-based organizations – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and others – play enormously constructive roles in the world," said Scott Appleby, the co-chair of the report and the John M. Regan Director of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, on Tuesday.

"They are pivotal to global efforts to educate women and children, deliver health care, fight disease, resolve conflicts and promote democracy," he said. "Policymakers need to understand this, because shrewd engagement of religious communities is in the best strategic interests of the United States."

During a media event for the launch of the report Tuesday, Appleby highlighted three recommendations the task force came up with on how the U.S. government can better engage with religious communities abroad.

The report calls for greater religious literacy among foreign service officers and diplomats so they can be more aware of the complicated dynamics of religions in the communities they serve in. The recommended courses would teach practical knowledge about religions rather than academic-type religious studies.

Appleby said the report also calls on the U.S. president to clarify the misunderstanding among many policy makers that the constitution prohibits engagement with foreign religious communities. The history professor said it is apparent to many in the government that work on health care, development and conflict resolution that engagement with local religious leaders is required in order to fulfill U.S. missions.

The report asks the president to declare that American foreign service officers are allowed to engage with religious communities overseas and to lay out the limits of that engagement.

The president is also urged to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to clarify what role religious freedom plays in U.S. government international policy.

Report co-chair Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, stressed the need for greater religious literacy among American foreign service officials. Cizik recalled a time when an American diplomat to China was asked at a congressional hearing what he thought about the religious situation in China, particularly the house church movement. The diplomat responded by asking what a house church is. Cizik said in his dealings with other foreign service officers, he found that many also do not understand the house church, state church structures in China.

The report is timely, members of the task force noted, because the United States is currently trying to work with religious communities in its counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But the experts emphasized that the U.S. government should not limit its engagement with religious communities only when dealing with Muslim extremists.

The task force for the report included 32 experts including former government officials, religious leaders, heads of international organizations and scholars. The report's public release was co-sponsored by Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.