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By Tom Cushing

Religion and Politics III: Foreign Policy.

Uploaded: Aug 31, 2011

Well, this may be a mercifully brief edition, as I've been basking in the green Sierra. My overheated synapses were gloriously sanctified in the restorative waters of Huntington Lake. In this late summer reverie, I feel like the psalmist?

Ahem. Completing the religion and politics trilogy, this week's invitation is to consider the role of religion in foreign affairs. How does faith contribute to an understanding of, and underwrite this country's actions toward the great Other – other people, of other religions (or none), living elsewhere in the world?

Outreach has always seemed to be a part of the Christian heritage, beginning with the apostle Paul's various sojourns around the Mediterranean and into Rome. Much later, and for several hundred years, Crusades were fought against infidels of many stripes (not just of the Muslim persuasion). In each case, the Crusaders apparently intended to extend the reach of their religion, in these many cases by force of arms.

In our own state's history, clerics accompanying the Spanish conquerors established a network of missions whose names endure in our cities. They did so ostensibly to enlighten the spirits of benighted primitives – which often included the brutal enslavement of their bodies in the process. Certainly, missionary zeal continues among various denominations –- well and truly intended by its best angels to relieve suffering -- and to import to the natives someone else's version of salvation.

In today's world, foreign aid from governments takes a variety of forms and is based on several very secular political motivations. Is it fair to say that at least some of those contributions also spring from humanitarian instincts, nurtured by faith?

It might be noted that the United States is not a particularly heavy donor in relation to GDP. Is there an argument founded on religious principles like charity, or at least "noblesse oblige," that America ought to do more? Congressman Charlie Wilson may not have been the most pious of advocates, but didn't he get it right in proposing aid to post-Soviet Afghanistan? Does America's commitment to its values end at our borders, or should this country be a missionary for self-determination, and oppose tyranny by peaceful means?

Regardless, it's clear that foreign aid investments are dwarfed by the many military commitments made by the United States. Does some religious motivation underlie our professed role in spreading democracy and nation-building by military means? And what if we don't approve of their version of self-determination? Does faith oppose the active use of military power? Or is there a faith-based argument for ongoing US interventions as a kind of world policeman? Did that justify Clinton-era actions in the Balkans? If so, where were we when Rwanda disintegrated into wanton violence?

And finally, has America's war on terror become infected with Crusades-like overtones?