Conscience, Sidelined?

Last week the Council on Foreign Relations -- that oldest and, depending on your perspective, most august, or most mysterious, think tank on global affairs -- convened the most recent of its "Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop" gatherings. Unusually for the Council, this gathering reaches well outside its own membership to include a cross section of faith leaders reflecting the increasingly pluralistic landscape of America's religious commitments and communities.

At least in its earliest editions, the Workshop seemed somewhat exploratory. Coming late (as did much of the foreign policy establishment) to a realization of religion's salience in setting the terms for the pursuit of US interests and the potential threats to US security, the Workshop seemed in one gesture to be asking two questions: How can we better deepen and enrich our understanding of, and facility with, religion's role in global affairs? and, Can faith leaders contribute constructively to high-level conversations about the challenges policymakers face?
That second question is perhaps an awkward one, but it is also a real one. As a paid-up member of a mainline Protestant denomination as well as (full disclosure) a member of the CFR, I was eager to see the first of these meetings take place--but I'm also aware that the suspicion and disdain that many church gatherings have expressed toward both US policy and its makers is sometimes reciprocated, perhaps not surprisingly, by those who have to guide the nation through the stormy seas of the World As It Is. It is surely right that we who hope and pray for the World As It Might Be hold our leaders to account; but we often do so in ways that ignore or simply deny the complexity and seriousness of their tasks.

If people know anything at all about the Council, it's likely to be the rule of its meetings: they're held on a not-for-attribution basis. Well, not all of them--a lot of on-the-record meetings are held, and posted on the CFR website--but some, like this one, are held under "Chatham House Rules," meant to encourage candor and openness. The gracious rooms of the Council's New York home gently but firmly encourage civility -- but that encouragement can sometimes fall short of the energy released by controversial topics.

Bringing together a group of faith leaders and a group of policy makers may seem like gathering a perfect storm of potential dispute and discord. Instead, the conversation has become an annual event in the calendar of many of its participants, both for interfaith conversation outside the usual channels and for engagement across the sacred-secular divide.

Since that first workshop, the Council has created a significant well of expertise in a field that was, until this conversation began, rarely spoken of within its walls or on its considerably broad agenda. The result has become something known as the Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative, reflecting a sustained focus on questions at the intersection of domestic and global faith communities and a broad range of issues--human rights, development, globalization, climate change, gender, refugees, immigration, and, yes, security as well.

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When these meetings were first held, the general direction of them was outward; the idea was to bring together representatives across the spectrum of faiths and belief traditions in the United States to engage with policymakers in discussing issues beyond America's borders in some way characterized by a religious aspect.

This year's gathering, the tenth in the series, was notable for a distinctly inward focus. Whereas previous gatherings were characterized by conversations reflecting the diversity of religious perspectives and commitments among the participants, this year's theme seemed to be the shared experience--regardless of tradition--of being almost entirely sidelined by the political discourse of this peculiar election year.

Virtually all of our traditions teach the virtue of caring for the most vulnerable and those who seek refuge from danger. That has placed all of our traditions at considerable odds with a populist resentment against migrants and refugees desperate for a safe escape from violence and disorder, whether in the Levant or Latin America.

From a shared awareness of the existence of a source of creation, all of our traditions teach the virtues of reverence toward, and humility from the knowledge of, that reality--even if we often fail to behave in line with those beliefs. But that sensibility stands profoundly at odds with a political season glorifying the twin themes of entitlement and hubris that, bewilderingly, seem to attractive to the populace--even to those who show up in our pews.

Instead of talking across our differences, this year we found ourselves groping to share ideas and resolve for speaking the truths understood by our traditions directly to our own people--even when those people are falling under the spell of ideas and passions completely at odds with those teachings. Especially for the mainline Protestant voices in the gathering, long struggling to regain something of their past credibility as moral teachers, the risk in this for individual pastors can be daunting. "We are approaching our own Bonhoeffer moment," observed one.
That may be. Certainly there is much in the teachings of our traditions about human dignity that seems to have little traction in the current debate. Those who stand in pulpits of all traditions will have some hard choices to make in the weeks and months ahead about whether to steer into, or along with, the prevailing winds. As we do so, it will be a little reassuring to know that many others, in our own credal tribes and others, are navigating in the same gusts.