The West needs to understand faith

25 March 2009

There is a dangerous ignorance of religion in the West’s foreign policy, argues John Packer

A true picture? Tina Townsend Greaves, from Yorkshire, visits Baghdad last Saturday, as part of the first official tourist trip there since 2003

A true picture? Tina Townsend Greaves, from Yorkshire, visits Baghdad last Saturday, as part of the first official tourist trip there since 2003

The House of Lords, in a recent five-hour debate, surveyed new challenges to British foreign policy at the start of the Obama presidency. Much of the discussion centred on Lord Marlesford’s assertion that “the greatest and most dangerous chal­lenge is the West’s present conflict with Islamicism.”

That accurate assessment demon­strates the most crucial fissure in our culture, international and local: our failure to engage constructively in the “battle for ideas”, and to understand those with different perceptions from our own.

Professor James Jones, the Amer­ican religious psychologist and aca-d­emic of comparative religion (Com­ment, 6 March), argues in his study Blood that Cries out from the Earth (OUP, 2008) that liberal dem­o­cracies, which are based on the values of individual rights and government by negotiation and compromise, have not yet begun to find a way to respond to those who are convinced that God has given us a divine mandate for the way society should be organised and governed. This is not only a mark of Muslim jihadi, but also, for example, of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and Chris­tian reconstructionists in the United States.

Our temptation is to dismiss such an understanding of God as simply inappropriate, and so we fail to take it seriously and engage with it. Our secular democracies are not opposed to religion. They believe that faith is a private, individualised matter, which may well benefit the individual, but must not be allowed to affect our political and public life.

In our international relationships, this means, for example, that we fail to understand the deep sense of divine purpose shared (however great their differences) by many in government in both Israel and Iran. We are therefore tempted simply to regard Iran as “evil”, and, on the other hand, to experience a growth in anti-Semitism in opposition to Israel.

I believe we do need to affirm the rights of individuals and the values of an open, welcoming society. We also need to work for a world order where we recognise both the quality and the sincerity of those with whom we disagree. Christians are well-placed to do this from a basis of faith in God and his purposes.

So we need to establish an inter­national culture where deeply held visions are held alongside each other. We need to be critical of that deep materialism in Western society that leads Iranian ministers to speak of the US as “the Great Satan”. The credit crunch needs to give a new im­petus to that slogan that we need to “live simply that others may simply live” (Comment, 5 April 2007).

We shall affirm a more equal society, where individual rights are balanced by individual respons­ibilities, and we can learn from other cultures that are much more critical of materialism than we are. There should always be an element of humility, haunted by the failures of democracy, most notably in 1930s Germany.

Christians will also acknowledge the responsibility for so often accept­ing the cultural assumption that religion is private and personal rather than political and communal. I shall always be challenged by the assertion of an asylum tribunal that Angli-

cans had no duty to proclaim their faith publicly, and so Anglican con­verts could safely be returned to coun­tries that forbade any form of evan­gelism.

In our own society, we must chal­lenge the assumption that, for example, Christian adoption agen­cies should pay no attention to Christian principles when placing children. We still often hear the extraordinary assertion that faith should not influence how Christians vote.

THE ISSUES of the relationship between liberal democracies and societies with a concept of a divine mandate is the most serious example of our failure to recognise the place of faith in public life. The result of this is a deep lack of understanding or even the will to understand.

President George W. Bush spoke in 2001 of the need to wage a war of ideas. David Miliband, in his seminal lecture in July 2007 on “New Dip­lomacy”, likewise talked of the ways that the battle of ideas was funda­mental to Britain’s foreign-policy priorities.

Yet, so often in our approach to foreign affairs, we are dismissive of those with whom we disagree, seek­ing to condemn rather than engage, and using language of battle rather than dialogue. We have learned that this will not do locally. For example, the community of Beeston in Leeds needed to come together in unity after the 7/7 bombings, to condemn violence and seek to establish local friendships and common aims.

We have not yet, however, learned to do this on the international stage. Although we no longer use the language of crusades to describe our involvement with the Islamic world, there is little indication of real engagement with its ideas.

Iran, in particular, still sees West­ern policy as an attempt to impose an alien and God-forsaken system on its life and culture. Unless President Obama and his allies, us included, can demonstrate that this perception is false, we shall not make progress in seeking the peace of the world.

The Rt Revd John Packer is the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds.

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