When “freedom from religion” became dangerous
By Kelly Thomas | October 1, 2016, 6:00 EST
It’s no secret that religion has become a dirty word in the public sphere, particularly in politics. The “freedom of religion” portion of the First Amendment has increasingly come to mean that public expressions of faith are unwelcome, lest anyone feel offended. It goes without saying that religious intolerance in the name of tolerance runs contrary to America’s founding principles. But in the age of religiously motivated terrorism, it has also become a national security liability.
A privatized role for religion is precisely the opposite of the robust relationship our Founding Fathers envisioned between Church and State. In his Federalist papers, James Madison openly encouraged vibrant, and even raucous, religious debate in the public square, noting that such dialogue is a necessity condition liberty to flourish. George Washington’s Farewell Address called for freedom of religious expression for all faiths, commenting that religion is one of the “indispensable supports” of the fledgling nation. The so-called Establishment Clause of the first Amendment in the U.S. Constitution was designed to preserve and protect this very freedom.
Since the latter half of the twentieth century, there has been a gradual but notable move to relegate religion out to the private sphere and ban it entirely from the public square. The 1960, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, campaigned on the promise of a public indifference to religion, asserting his belief that a president’s religious views should be a strictly private affair and not affect his policy decisions. At a campaign event in Houston, he assured a largely Protestant crowd that he believed “[I]n a President whose religious views are his own private affair.”
Kennedy’s remarks are emblematic of an era in which the governing elite stripped religion, the once “indispensable support,” from the public square. The Establishment Clause, which had been designed to protect dissenters from religious persecution, increasingly became used to refer to any public invocation of religion as called coercion. Today, politicians are encouraged to pay the traditional lip service to religion in speeches, as when they say “God Bless America” at a speech’s conclusion, but the entire policy apparatus in the Beltway has effectively purged religion from political discourse. The result is that, even in the spheres of foreign policy and national security, policy-makers view world events – many of which are religiously motivated – through an entirely secular lens.
In the months leading up to the Iranian Revolution, a CIA analyst suggested that the U.S. intelligence community track several members of Tehran’s religious circles. Despite the revolutionaries’ overt statements about their religious ties, the CIA dismissed the suggestion as a useless endeavor. When those same revolutionaries overthrew the secular, western-backed shah in 1979 and put a theocracy in place, the U.S. was blindsided. Despite this error, D.C. bureaucrats largely did not learn their lesson. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, wrote in 2006 that “Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.” While that logic may hold true when trying to keep the peace at a family reunion or company picnic, it hardly works when dealing with a national security threat that openly proclaims religious motivations.
Both Presidents Bush and Obama have understandably and justifiably refrained from appearing to condemn the religion in whose name groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda operate. Such reticence is necessary, lest the U.S. government appear to be condemning a world religion and its adherents, the vast majority of which condemn the terrorists’ actions. Furthermore, very few faith traditions have been immune to terrorist organizations acting in their names. On the other hand, by denying the theological underpinnings of these groups, who continue to carry out attacks both in their own regions and in the West, the United States is applying a thoroughly secularized lens to the situation. Decades of eradicating religion from political discourse has blinded much of the Beltway inhabitants to the driving force of religion in politics, and unfortunately this has had massive strategic implications for current United States efforts to combat religiously-driven terrorism.
In the fifteen years since 9/11 propelled Islamist terrorism to the top of the U.S. national security priorities, the policymaking elite in D.C. have performed rhetorical acrobatics to avoid using the term “Islamic,” despite the overt religious statements made by the offending groups, who quote Islam’s holy texts as they call the world to wage Jihad against American and her allies.
Obama has gone so far as to claim that acknowledging ISIS’ theological roots, distorted as they may be, would accomplish nothing in the strategic fight against ISIS and other Islamic terrorists. From a theoretical perspective, not only does this contradict the entire canon of military strategy from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, which demands comprehensive knowledge of the enemy’s objectives as a prerequisite for victory, but from a practical perspective, it also reduces the United States’ menu of options to military and development responses. Both of these are no doubt necessary, but they do little to combat the ideological element of the conflict.
The White House’s current denial of the role of religion in the mission of ISIS is eerily reminiscent of the CIA’s dismissal of the “Islamic” portion of the Islamic revolutionaries title in 1979 Iran. Compounding the problem, top officials’ dismissals of religion provide little impetus for a religiously illiterate foreign policy apparatus to adapt its ways to face the religiosity of the terrorist threat.
By stripping religion from the public square and insisting that policymakers view events through a strictly secular lens, the United States has rendered itself incapable of forming a comprehensive strategy to combat religiously motivated terrorists. We may be able to mitigate the threat of terrorism, and indeed may be able to decimate whole organizations, but that is not enough to rectify this strategic shortcoming. United States policymakers must also allow religion back into political discourse if there is to be any chance of engaging with, and thus rooting out the toxic ideologies distorting religion and perpetrating terror across the globe.
Kelly Thomas has a masters in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London.