Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 2 of 4

crescent moonIn Part 1 of this article I discussed why it seemed somewhat odd that the fledgling new nation of the United States of America decided not include a “department of religion” in its foreign policy structure. On the other hand, as a sign of the intellectual times, it seemed normal. But what were those times? Let’s look at that in this post. It was the end of the eighteenth century, and America’s founding fathers, politically, had drawn heavily from Enlightenment rationalism’s so-called secular way of doing politics. And that has had serious implications for U.S. foreign policy ever since. See what you think. Let’s have some conversation about this.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma
of U.S.-Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

The secularization of U.S. foreign policy has been aptly explored by Scott Thomas in The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. An international relations scholar from the London School of Economics who teaches at the University of Bath, Thomas asks us to think about the conceptual map of secularism that has informed U.S. foreign policy making since its beginning.

The map dates back to Enlightenment reasoning, and on it Thomas finds four primary contours that have historically shaped Washington’s approach to international relations. These contours suggest why it is difficult, if not unthinkable, for any presidential administration to seek the proper place of religion in U.S. foreign affairs. Briefly summarized here, the four contours are:

1) Secularization theory, which “helped to explain religion away, rather than to explain its significance in social action,” for it was “argued that the numbers of people who declare themselves to be believers and who regularly attend religious services will steadily decline as a country modernizes.”[1]

2) The civil war between Catholics and Protestants in France (1550-1650) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) had engulfed all of Europe. The treaties that ended these catastrophic wars brought about what has been called the Westphalian era, in which the rise of “the liberal or secular state” was going to “save us from the cruel and violent consequences of religion. The modern state, the privatization of religion, and the secularization of politics arose to limit religion’s domestic influence, minimize the affect of religious disputes, and end the bloody and destructive role of religion in international affairs.”[2] In the Westphalian system, political governance is organized around states’ so-called secular interests; religious toleration domestically, and religious noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states, are also guiding principles.

3) All of the different Western schools of international relations that have arisen since the seventeenth century have downplayed the study of religion upon international relations. Instead, each school in its own way (e.g., political realism and political idealism), have focused on aspects such as military power, national interests, the balance of power, international law, and international institutions.[3]

4) The Westphalian model has followed the dictates of the modern scientific method, whose twin controls of naturalism and materialism admit into its theories only one reality, the physical world. Here, religion is seen, at best, as a mere epiphenomenon, rather than as a basic instinct of human nature.[4]

To sum up…, Western political theory has explicitly followed secular contours. In so doing it has shaped and validated approaches to the study and practice of international relations and foreign policy in ways that have marginalized the legitimate interests and concerns of religious actors, religious belief, and religious institutions. After settling in, this political way of thinking has had more than 200 years to become second nature to specialists in U.S. foreign policy.

choicesSimilar to Thomas, Edward Luttwak, an international relations historian, attributes Washington’s basic foreign policy problem with religion to what he calls its secularizing reductivism. And he adds this, which helps explain why political analysts, journalists, and others were caught short on the religious implications of 9/11. Today, “Enlightenment prejudice … has remained amply manifest in the contemporary professional analysis of foreign affairs.” And with the sway of modern secularism, both politicians and journalists have often ignored “the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivation in explaining politics and conflict.” Instead, they have focused far too much on geographic, economic, social, political, or other non-religious primary causes. For Luttwak, this indicates “a learned repugnance to contend intellectually with all that is religion or belongs to it.”[5]

As I was thinking and writing about this one day back in 2007, I conducted a simple experiment. I pushed my chair back from my writing desk and took a break. I walked to my book shelves, where at the time I had fifty-two titles covering U.S. and Western international relations history, theory, and practice. Twelve of those titles were then in use in American university classrooms. (I ignored the other titles for this experiment.) I wanted to know how much attention the classroom texts (the twelve I knew about) gave to issues of religion in foreign policy. So I made some notes. Of the approximately 3,600 pages that comprise these twelve titles, only 76 pages addressed religious concerns, with many of the references limited to a short paragraph or less. And 61 of those pages appeared in one book![6]

Drawing from her personal experience as a foreign policy student, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirms the systemic, academic disinterest in religion in university IR classrooms. In The Mighty and the Almighty, Albright reveals that her education in world affairs gave her quite a distaste for anything to do with religion in international relations. To some of her Georgetown students, she opened a window on her academic training:

My speciality was foreign policy, about which such icons as Hans Morganthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. In their view, individuals and groups could be identified by the nations to which they belonged. Countries had governments. Governments acted to protect their nations’ interests, at least to the point where wars did not break out and the world did not blow up. Foreign policy was commonly compared to a game of chess: cerebral, with both sides knowing the rules. This was a contest governed by logic; its players spoke in the manner of lawyers, not preachers…. Religion was not a respecter of national borders; it was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and, historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion. This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and as secretary of state. My colleagues felt the same. [7]

Like many in her field, Albright moved off this position after 9/11. Now when teaching in university classrooms she explains to students that learning about world affairs “cannot be done without taking religious tenets and motivations fully into account.”[8]

U.S foreign policy, of course, is not a one-way street. The formal role that religion plays in foreign policy toward America by Muslim majority countries in the Middle East is the other horn of the dilemma in U.S. – Mideast relations. Part 3 of this article delves into this much misunderstood area.


[1] Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillian, 2005), pp. 50, 52.

[2] Ibid., p. 22; see also pp. 54-55.

[3] Ibid., pp. 55-58.

[4] Ibid., pp. 59-63.

[5] Johnston and Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft; Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” pp. 8-10.

[6] The twelve titles: The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939; The Anarchical Society; Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations; Paths to Power; Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy; Neorealism and Its Critics; Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Understanding International Conflicts; Power and Independence; Politics Among Nations; American Diplomacy; Promised Land, Crusader State (the title with the 61 pages). For complete title information, see this Bibliography on the Web.

[7] Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 8.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images: Crescent moon by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; two paths by William Ward (permissions via Creatve Commons).

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