In an April speech at Rice University, United States Secretary of State John Kerry stated that understanding religion is essential to American foreign policy. Recognizing the shifting global landscape, Kerry said, "The more we understand religion and the better able we are as a result to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people."
It is refreshing to see a politician acknowledge religion's relevance in world affairs in such a direct manner. Granted, this acknowledgement is framed by an instrumental approach to religion, namely, how to use religion in order to advance political interests. Kerry, however, comes close to going beyond this instrumental view of religion's relevance to acknowledging its centrality. “It is up to us to recognize that we can’t lead a world that we don’t understand,” Kerry said, “and that we can’t understand the world if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people.”
As a Reformed Christian who views all of life as religious, I resonate with the view of religion's centrality in our lives. Contrary to popular opinion, religion is not optional. Religion is not simply a moral addendum to one's life, like some sort of glorified hobby. It does not simply enhance one's life. Religion orients and shapes our lives.
Religion is as basic as economics and emotions.
This, of course, would be an outrageous claim if we simply view religion as an institutional set of beliefs about spiritual matters and ethics, coupled with odd rituals and practices. However, my tradition views religion as a basic human activity, part and parcel of how God created us. It is as basic as economics and emotions. This is because religious beliefs are, at their core, worldview beliefs. Worldview beliefs provide answers to basic belief questions: Who are we? Where are we? What's wrong with the world? What's the remedy for what's wrong? What is ultimate reality? Our answers to these questions shape how we approach life and engage the world. They deeply shape our ethics. Our anthropology will be very different depending on whether we view human beings as animals who got lucky in the evolutionary lottery or as creatures made in the image of God.
Defining religion in this way means that religion is broader than institutional organizations. It also means, as suggested earlier, that religion is a universal human phenomena.
Hence, the doctrine of the separation of church and state only applies to the separation of institutions. Religious institutions should not influence political institutions, and vice-versa. It is impossible, however, to divide religious beliefs from one's political views, as the former – by way of worldview beliefs – shape the latter, even if indirectly.
Kerry's acknowledgements recognize this reality, something that is refreshingly honest amidst the common conflation of a separation of church and state with a separation of religious beliefs from the public square. This conflation is a legacy of the Western Enlightenment. It seems that non-Western religions and cultures, lacking this sacred private and secular public divide, have pushed the West into re-evaluating this Enlightenment fallacy. After all, it is in foreign affairs with other nations that Kerry speaks favorably of religion.
I hope – and this is probably wishful thinking – that Kerry's respect for religion's relevance in foreign policy might lead to recognition of religion's role in domestic issues. The American culture wars are not simply a clash of values, but a conflict of deep-seated religious worldviews. Yet mainstream media and politicians rarely approach the increasing polarization in American society at that level. An honest exploration of how different basic worldview beliefs shape our divisions would be illuminating. And to paraphrase Kerry, we cannot expect to lead our citizens if we don't understand them. And we can't understand our citizens if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role of religious beliefs in their lives.