The Candidates and The World

Transition 2012

A guide to foreign policy and the 2012 U.S. presidential transition.

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Tracking the Issues: Religion as a Foreign Policy Force

by Newsteam Staff
April 13, 2012

An Ohio nun wears a voting sticker next to her crucifix on Super Tuesday in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6, 2012 (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters). An Ohio nun wears a voting sticker next to her crucifix on Super Tuesday in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6, 2012 (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters).


Religion and faith have already come into play on the campaign trail, not just in the run-of-the-mill quizzing of candidates on their beliefs but also how their views on religion and religious freedom will shape their policy overseas.

In Foreign Affairs, Andrew Preston says the Obama administration has “placed religion front and center” in important foreign policy speeches, but with little follow through.

“It took 18 months for Obama to appoint a director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which monitors the extent to which other nations respect the religious liberty of their own citizens,” he write. “He has also been slow to follow up the religious liberty objectives he laid out, most notably in his Cairo speech, for the Middle East.”

Preston admits, however that “caution is warranted” in pushing matters of faith overseas. “Not everyone shares the United States’ religious worldview, which has two basic components that do not always sit easily with each other: an exceptionalist conceit of the United States as God’s chosen nation and an embrace of religious liberty historically grounded in the separation of church and state,” he says.

GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney may have gotten his first taste of international diplomacy (TIME) winning over skeptics as a Mormon missionary in France for two and a half years. His own mission experience and the general missionary call of his religion may color Romeny’s foreign policy, says Molly Worthen in Foreign Policy last year.

“Missions demand a paradoxical combination of ideological commitment and pragmatic flexibility,” Worthen says, and Romney’s mission experience likely taught him how to be “sensitive to the challenges of communicating in a culture different from [his] own” and how to be “realistic about the compromises and adjustable expectations.” David Benson, however, at Real Clear World says Worthen gives Romney short shrift by not discussing any actual foreign policy, even though ample information exists.

For his part, Romney has largely shied away from discussing his own religion in terms of foreign policy, focusing instead on others’ and its impact on diplomacy. He has called Islam “one of the world’s great religions” and condemned jihadists for their attempts to collapse moderate Muslim states and kill moderate Muslim leaders (VOA).

“[Jihadism] is also intent on causing collapse of other nations in the world. It’s by no means a branch of Islam. It is instead an entirely different entity. In no way do I suggest it is a part of Islam.” He has also talked about preventing jihadists from gaining influence in Africa (Brookings).

Suggested Other Reading:

Religion is playing an unprecedented role in the 2012 campaign (CSMonitor).

Visit CFR’s initiative on Religion and Foreign Policy, a resource for deepening the understanding of issues at the crossroads of religion and U.S. foreign policy.

This panel discusses the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy and ow the U.S. State Department is making engaging global religious leaders on policy and supporting religious freedom top priorities.

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University recently hosted a symposium exploring the role of religious groups in the Arab world after a year of political upheaval.

— Gayle S. Putrich, Contributing Editor


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