WASHINGTON (CNS) — The authors of a new paper issued by the Brookings Institute stress the importance of religious literacy in diplomatic dialogue.

Titled “Integrating Religious Engagement Into Diplomacy: Challenges and Opportunities,” the paper was written by Peter Mandaville, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, and Sara Silvestri, a senior lecturer at City University London.

The crux of the paper is the importance of developing “more systematic approaches to the integration of religion and religious engagement into a wider range of diplomatic activities.”


According to Mandaville and Silvestri, there is a strong “secular bias” within the institutional and operational framework of Western diplomacy, which they say severely hinders diplomatic dialogue and engagement with countries and societies outside of the industrialized world.

“In short,” the paper reads, “most conduct themselves with a tacit set of assumptions about what religion is, where it belongs and who speaks on its behalf. … Even the legal frameworks within which states and international organizations operate contribute to reproducing the myth of secularism as a neat and settled account of two clearly demarcated realms — the spiritual and the political — when, in fact, social reality is far more complex.”

“This attitude is driven, in large part, by this prevailing idea that religion and government don’t mix,” Mandaville told Catholic News Service Feb. 2. “But that’s not what the U.S. law or Constitution says; what it says is that the federal government cannot pass laws that favor one specific faith tradition over another.”

He explained that “bureaucratic institutions in the Western world are bound by secular legal constraints, as well as the perception that public policy is a ‘no-go’ zone for religion of any kind. Likewise, these institutions are risk-averse, which perpetuates the secular tendencies.”

The paper also suggests policy prescriptions, such as the creation of new areas of the U.S. State Department tasked with understanding and addressing issues in a religious context, as well as the training of Field Service Officers in what the authors call “religious literacy.” This would include an understanding of world religions, an understanding of the “varying roles that religions play in different societies”, and “the practical aspects of engaging with religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and other religious actors.”

Such measures would help lawmakers to move “away from a model whereby religion is viewed as being relevant only to certain specialized functions such as the advancement of international religious freedom.” The approach described by the authors also would allow diplomats to depart from the popular dialogue with “religious leaders and faith-based organizations that view those entities as having a limited role around a specific set of policy issues.”

“When we wrote this paper, we had in mind the broad realm of foreign policy,” Silvestri told CNS. “Aid and international development are two dimensions of foreign policy and two of the areas where perhaps the need to understand the nuances of religious values and religious practices is most urgent.

“It is no surprise, for instance, when the U.K. Department of International Development produced studies on the relevance of religion to the work they do.”

The paper came out just a few days after Pope Francis’ recent trip to Southeast Asia, where the pontiff spoke on what he calls “ideological colonization,” the imposition of Western ideologies such as same-sex marriage, “gender theory” and abortion/contraception on the developing world by tying them to foreign aid resources and programs.

“It is not born of the dream that we have with God from prayer, or from the mission that God gives us; it comes from outside, and that’s why I say it is colonization,” the pope said, adding that it referred to “materialism and lifestyles which are destructive of family life and the most basic demands of Christian morality.”