Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1995
Volume 7, Number 1

Religion and State: Book Seeks to Be a Fine Horse . . . But Authors Turn Out a 'Sometime Camel'

A Review of Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (editors). Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kenneth L. Wise
Director of the International Relations Graduate Program

"Peace is a gift from God and a preeminent human obligation."
--Jimmy Carter

Though hoping for a fine horse, the committee assembling this work bred a sometime camel.

The book puts on main stage the reality that religion is a fundamental part of global political life. It asks, through several case studies: How aware are we of the religious and spiritual aspects of global political life? How important can these aspects be? How should scholars observe, teachers teach, diplomats pursue, and journalists write about these? The book also tries to argue that religiously and spiritually inspired persons may resolve conflict better than old-time diplomats.

Study Director Douglas Johnston, writing especially to U. S. readers, argues that "the rigorous separation of church and state in the United States has desensitized many citizens [to] the depths to which religious and pomaetical considerations interact in shaping the perceptions and motivations of individuals from other societies. We also inadequately appreciate . . . that, under the right conditions, the [disputing] parties can operate at a higher level of trust than . . . in the realm of the realpolitik." Religion here implies "an institutional framework with which specific theological doctrines and practices are advocated and pursued, usually among a community of like-minded believers." Spirituality here suggests persons acting out of "a faith commitment" that may be beyond "allegiance to any particular religious tradition" (p. 5).

Without question U.S. foreign policy analysts, in and out of government, have overlooked the critical importance of religion and spirituality in conflicts: South Vietnam (until the Buddhist monks forced our attention to suppression by the Catholic minority), Lebanon (until U.S. Marines died in the barracks blast), Iran (until the "most earnestly pious backward bearded ones" won).

Authors such as Bruce Nichols, David Steele, Henry Wooster, and Ron Kraybill conclude that representatives of religious groups and persons of peacemaker instincts should appeal to leaders' sensitivities as humans, to the golden rule, to accepting procedural standards for agreeing how to disagree. They should help leaders learn to share territory and tolerate groups' differences. The authors, however, overlook the point that achieving these outcomes requires that disputants and intervenors share values at the outset of negotiation. One may infer from the case studies that such intervenors can succeed rather in the same manner as courts may: when parties are already predisposed to listen, when they are looking for a respectable way out, or when, because of the personalistic nature of their rule, they can, by force of individual decision, use the intervenor's respectability to their own ends.

These explorations are not new. Thomas a Kempis, Pascal, Du Cange, Mabillon, Kierkegaard, Newman, and others have been here. But they have generally been pushed aside in the teaching and practice of statecraft. The Enlightenment dug a trench between affairs of church and state. Of course the Enlightenment did not "get it all wrong." The "learned repugnance" for religion that Edward Luttwak attacks (p. 9) was brought on by the all too visible religious justifications for violence for separatist or suppressive ends. To succeed today intervenors must pull spirit and politics together.

To its credit the project's editors see some of the weaknesses in their cases (Ch. 11) and resist claiming too much glory for intervenors:

1. Each case unique. Three cases examine nonviolent struggles for political change: East Germany, Philippines, Republic of South Africa. Three cases consider the problem of ending wars: Nicaragua, Nigeria, Rhodesia. And two cases review postwar reconciliation: Nigeria (again), post World War II France and Germany. The too few cases support only a small number of highly tentative propositions.

2. The history may be inaccurate. Conditions contributing to ending conflict and promoting reconciliation may require that important persons remain essentially invisible during the processes and even in postwar records.

3. The study's research method is largely journalistic interviews. No theoretical frame holds the interview questions together. Information gathered this way is too weak to support predictions and, thus, is not useful for policy guidance. For example, we cannot say from the evidence here whether or when to rely on religious resources inside a country (the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines, East German demonstrations in 1989, Nicaragua, South Africa, Rhodesia) and when to try to augment them from outside (French-German reconciliation, Nigerian civil war, Rhodesian independence--at a different stage); whether or when religious leaders or mediators should work within the local political process (Nicaragua and Nigeria) or from the outside (France-Germany, Philippines demonstrations, South African unity) or to mix (Rhodesia, East Germany); or when to turn to a world ecumenical body (World Council of Churches) or a denominational one (the Vatican) or national ecumenical or denominational body; or a specific group (Moral Re-Armament or Quakers) or individuals (South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter). Religious agents may be activists for nonviolent change, advocates for particular groups or causes, third-party mediators or conciliators, or judges. Hence one may wait forever for a "proper" alignment of political, economic, and security factors before trying spiritual or religious intervention.

4. Johnston's predisposition to "idealism" handicaps his policy recommendations (p. 293). His diatribe against the "realist" theory of international politics misses its mark. While this reviewer shares Johnston's assumptions that human beings, individually and in groups, are potentially harmonious, neither of us can prove this to "realists." "Realists" perceive human beings differently. Johnston lacks warrant to claim that the current rise in visibility of "idealist" or liberal analyses means "realist" theory is losing and is unable to explain the world's behavior. Whether the world is populated by "power-seeking" entities doomed to conflict or by persons and groups wanting to and capable of, and likely to cooperate in, pursuing common ends is a matter of a beholder's predisposition and perception and is not an empirically "winnable" proposition. "Realists" are losing faith in themselves only to the extent that they limit their analysis of global politics to the behavior of states (legal entities). "Realists" who have expanded their list of actors to take in religious groups and cross-cutting groups such as international nongovernmental organizations are fully comfortable in their explanations of the ways of the world. Overall this project acknowledges that religion and spiritually motivated intervenors can cause, prevent, and resolve conflict. Religion's contribution to political life often has been intolerance, divisiveness, or resistance to necessary change (former Yugoslavia, Philippines, South Africa). In recent decades, however, churches and spiritual leaders have contributed often to positive change (Philippines, South Africa, East Germany) by acting as a forum for political expression (Central Europe), through their commitment to nonviolence (East Germany), and when wielding moral authority to preserve or restore political stability (France-Germany). Churches and spiritual leaders can erode negative stereotypes and re-humanize relationships (South Africa). Through a reputation for trustworthiness, plus personal contacts, they can actively negotiate (Nigeria), speak the truth (Rhodesia), mobilize populations for peace (Nicaragua), and help implement a peace agreement (South Africa).

Religious and spiritual intervenors may be effective when they introduce the authority of religion into negotiation because (1) they enable parties to act in deference to religion and concede assets to that authority rather than to the "enemy"; (2) they may expand the range of negotiating positions and, thus, increase the chance of finding grounds for settlement; (3) they equate overcoming war and social upheaval with the eternal life of the soul--a literary expression of the reality that the consequences of one's actions persist after one's death.