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Foreign Affairs recently published a piece by Andrew Preston exploring what might be called the paradox of religion in American foreign policy. Preston is critical of both the Obama and Bush administration’s approaches to this dilemma although not, perhaps, for the usual reasons. Rather than complaining that religion represents an irrational intrusion into the ‘adult’ world of foreign affairs, Preston concedes that, as religious practice grows worldwide (in defiance of simpler secularization theories), the subject will only grow in importance. And America’s own history, of course, means that avoiding the topic of religion when discussing foreign policy not only stunts the discussion but disingenuously undersells our own unique position.

This latter complaint he directs at the Obama administration, at least in terms of its actions failing to match its rhetoric. The present government, he says, simultaneously shies away from and attempts to defang religious claims because, at bottom, it is baffled by them. This is to the detriment of persecuted groups abroad, particularly Christians in the Arab Spring. Not that the previous administration fared much better: Bush’s second inaugural rang with the feverish promise of “ending tyranny in our world,” and his foreign policy reflected an unbridled confidence in the United States as a messianic world-historical force, resulting in painful, prolonged, and often unimagined outcomes.

Yet neither of these views can be as cleanly separated from the American imagination as one might be tempted to think. As Preston notes, they reflect extreme iterations of longstanding tendencies in American culture: on the one hand, an exaggerated notion of the “separation of church and state,” and on the other, an over-optimistic and misapplied version of the exceptionalism thesis. How can we get around this? Might there be another course of action, one which perhaps reaches back farther in our history than recent memory might suggest? Yes, Preston says, and it involves the United States carefully shepherding not democratization but, if it must intervene in a situation, paying attention to religious liberty claims:

U.S. presidents and policymakers have been most effective when they have argued that religious liberty is a fundamental — indeed, foundational — human right to be protected and promoted around the world, not only as a good in itself but as a way to safeguard U.S. national security.

Despite the missteps of the past decade, Preston writes, it is imperative to recognize that “doing nothing comes at a cost. Administrations that neglected, underestimated, or sidelined religion found themselves blindsided.” And “[i]n a world defined in large part by the growth of global faith, Obama would be wise to do so as well. Democracy promotion is important, but it would be far more effective if tied explicitly to the spread of religious liberty . . . [for] it will win the United States a very large, and very important, audience.”

It’s not entirely clear how the author’s recommendations would play out in policy terms. Preston is not suggesting that religious liberty concerns become the lodestar of American foreign policy, but neither is he merely making a case for religion’s continued importance or relevance. Rather, he seems to want to elevate religious liberty to a central place in deliberations about democratization , where he feels it has most been lacking. Against the extremes of “making the world safe for democracy” or pretending religion doesn’t have anything to do with these goals, we should re-calibrate our positive “humanitarian” efforts on the basis of religious liberty. That would greatly chasten our ambitions—and make them more realistic.

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