Shadow Government

God is back (and Iranians aren’t the only ones who get it)

By Will Inboden Sometimes it takes non-American voices to identify America’s strengths. Such is the case with the new book by the British writers (and Economist editors) John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge with the audacious title God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. About half of the book is a ...

By Will Inboden

Sometimes it takes non-American voices to identify America’s strengths. Such is the case with the new book by the British writers (and Economist editors) John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge with the audacious title God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. About half of the book is a survey of the seemingly endless — and endlessly creative — varieties of religion in the United States, while the other half of the book profiles a range of important religious movements around the world. Though in most cases it is not that religious faith has "re-appeared" after a long secular decline, but rather that elite observers are finally noticing what has been true all along: the vast majority of people outside the West, and many people in the West, are religious. 

To their credit, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not pretend that they are the first to (re)discover this. Nor do they glibly contend that religion is univocally either a Good or Bad thing. Their argument is rather that religion is important, is powerful, and must be understood if the world is to be understood. 

This is relevant in the context of many unfolding events, not least Iran. For example, as this article in today’s New York Times describes, most participants on all sides in the prevailing protests would consider themselves Muslims who seek to follow God’s will — where they differ is in precisely what God’s will is for their country and their government. Witness the demonstrators shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is Great)!" in their protests against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, who for his part insisted that Ahmadinejad had won a "divine victory." Even among the protestors, differences abound. Many of Moussavi’s followers seek to preserve Islamic rule while eradicating corruption, while other activists think that the entire system of clerical rule is itself un-Islamic and inimical to liberty and justice. In other words, the upheaval in Iran is about competing religious visions of what kind of nation Iran should be, and under what kind of political order. 

Nor is it mere coincidence that Ayatollah Khameinei’s regime, founded on a revolutionary order of militant Islamic rule (which is itself a deviation from Shi’ism’s generally quietist tradition of distinction between mosque and state, cf. Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq), is among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. The tiny minority populations of Iranian Christians, Jews, and Baha’is have all suffered severe persecution. And as seen vividly in the current protests, Iranian Muslims who differ from the regime’s version of Shari ‘a law have for decades been stifled in interpreting and expressing their faith as an alternative model for how their nation should be governed.

Religious freedom is central to Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s argument as well. As breezy and sometimes sprawling as the book is, the authors attempt to tie it together around a provocative thesis: the American religious system of disestablishment, choice, and competition, is becoming the ascendant religious model around the world. This is also a potent illustration, they believe, of American soft power. Whether consciously or not, religious leaders and movements across different faiths and spanning many nations are finding growth and success through models pioneered in America: independence, innovation, communication through new media, and energetic appeals for new adherents. 

Yet Micklethwait and Wooldridge also argue that this dimension of soft power has been relatively neglected by the U.S. government: "one of America’s oddest failures in recent years is its inability to draw any global lessons from its unique success in dealing with religion at home. It is a mystery why a country so rooted in pluralism has made so little of religious freedom."

This is a bit too harsh, as the United States has done and still does more to promote international  religious freedom than any other government. Witness the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) and annual report on religious freedom conditions in every country in the world, or the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or the Congressional Task Force on International Religious Freedom. No other government has any of these, let alone all of these, entities devoted to religious freedom promotion.

But the Micklethwait and Wooldridge critique still rings true. The IRF office is rather marginalized within the State Department bureaucracy, religious freedom is rarely integrated into the broader national security portfolio, and the United States could do much more to advance it. As my former State Department colleague Tom Farr has written, promoting religious freedom could and should be a strategic component of important issues, including counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism strategies, democracy and civil society promotion, conflict-resolution, and economic development. There are also intriguing connections between religious freedom and the overall quality of life and citizen happiness in nations, as the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index demonstrates. So promoting religious freedom should be understood as in the national interest more than it is.

Perhaps one reason behind this mystery is the generally secular nature of foreign policy elites, especially at the State Department. As Peter Berger has famously observed, if the Indians are the most religious people in the world, and the Swedes are the least religious people, then the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by a government of Swedes. Many foreign policy professionals in the United States just don’t understand religion, and do not see the merit in promoting religious freedom. This is beginning to change, judging by the recent spate of books, conferences, and task forces devoted to religion and foreign policy, but there is still much more to be done to address decades of cultural and systemic neglect.

Most immediately, the Obama administration needs to appoint a capable professional who understands both religion and foreign policy to the still-unfilled position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. And the Administration needs to appreciate that the valiant cries for justice and liberty being voiced today in Iran reflect not just the Iranian peoples’ political aspirations, but their religious aspirations as well. 

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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