Chicago’s Engaging Religious Communities Report

The Chicago Council of Global Affairs issued a report in February of this year entitled, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” The report, written by a task force led by Scott Appleby and Richard Cizik, was meant to provide a “framework” for U.S. policymakers to understand and respond to religious actors. In large part,  the report was intended to provide structure as well as practical recommendations to some of the principles Obama outlined in his Cairo speech for fruitfully engaging with the global Islamic community (and other religious communities in general).

One of the more interesting aspects of the report is a dissenting view tacked on to its end regarding the implications for the Establishment Clause of the U.S. constitution, and whether the clause puts constraints on the engagement of the U.S. government with established religions abroad (the dissenters don’t believe it should). The debate has continued over the last two months in a series of blogposts on the Immanent Frame by religion and politics experts.

While the taskforce authors do not recommend insisting that U.S. allies adopt Establishment Clauses themselves, they do recommend that the U.S. government use its Establishment Clause to encourage non-establishment norms in other countries as a means to “developing characteristics essential to a well-functioning liberal democracy.”

The report and the debate about it on the Immanent Frame illustrates just how deeply American scholars and policy-makers have internalized the association between the dis-establishment of religion and all the rights and liberties of democracy. Even one of the greatest critiques of the report, by Winnifred Sullivan, who denounces the simplistic nature of the report and the way it champions a new version of American Imperialism, herself equates Established Religions as being, “by definition not accepting of ‘pluralism, freedom and democracy.’”

This internalized association misses the startling wide range of religion-state arrangements which endorse and show favoritism to a religion or religions and the process by which many established religions, religious societies and democratic regimes have evolved over time, together, to better institute protections on human and social rights, including the protection of religious freedom. Rather than assuming Established Religions and Democracy are always anathema, a more complicated and interesting task for scholars is to take the variety of religion and state arrangements found in democracy more seriously. Among other questions, they ought to be asking what kinds of non-separation of religion and state have done a better of promoting a whole range of human and social rights, as well as ethical practices for good governance and economics, and how?