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?

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Swiss Minarets

The Swiss constitutional referendum last week banning the future construction of minarets garnered curiously mixed reactions in Europe which reflected the confusing political geography of the issue. One aspect of that geography is the emerging policy preferences of Christian church leaders (versus Christian political leaders). The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Switzerland, most significantly, wrote that the decision created “bitterness” in their hearts, and neighboring Catholic spokesmen in France and Italy did not like the precedent it set at all. Abbot Erminio de Scalzi, for example, auxiliary Bishop of Milan, said that, “it is not by forbidding minarets that one defends Christian values,” (see text here). De Scalzi’s comments are further evidence of an evolving, though not always consistent, Christian church position held by leaders from Rowan Williams to Ratzinger, that defends common, inter-religious “spiritual rights.” These spiritual rights, church leaders claim, require similar political status and protection as those of UN-recognized human rights. In creating such a position, church leaders are breaking with many “Christian” political leaders of the right (such as those allied with the Swiss People’s Party) who frame their opposition to immigration and islamization in the language of tradition and moral identity. Church leaders’ defence of religious pluralism sounds a lot like liberalism, and their soundbytes in the press over the Swiss incident were close to those of left and socialist politicians. However, church leaders’ intent to protect their own public presence in the state by promoting the spiritual presence of all religions in the state and to encourage the practice of a Christian political ethics of hospitality and “convivenza,” is infused with a religious logic and rhethoric which are in acute contraposition to the traditional political intuitions of most European liberals.   A political geography just about as non-Cartesian as Switzerland.