American foreign policy has been hampered by a lack of understanding about religion, a report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said.
Noting a "capabilities gap" in the religion field for U.S. foreign ministers, the 100-page "Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy" report recommended that government officials make religion "an integral part of our foreign policy," and urged President Obama to take concrete steps towards accomplishing that.
"What is needed is an informed and coherent framework that allows actors within and outside government to better understand and respond to religiously inspired actors and events in a way that supports those doing good, while isolating those that invoke the sacred to sow violence and confusion," the report reads.
According to the report, which was delivered to the White House on Tuesday, such steps must be taken due to the "increasingly influential role – both positive and negative" that religion has played in the public sphere in matters ranging from combating global poverty to initiating acts of terrorism.
"As America looks ahead, it is clear that religious actors will not only continue to present major challenges to our security, but provide enormous opportunities to create new alliances and forge new paths to peace and prosperity in many troubled areas of the world," the report said.
"It's a hot topic," Chris Seiple, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations told the Washington Post. "It's the elephant in the room."
"You're taught not to talk about religion and politics, but the bummer is that it's at the nexus of national security," he continued. "The truth is the academy has been run by secular fundamentalists for a long time, people who believe religion is not a legitimate component of realpolitik."
While agreeing that foreign ministers need to fill in the "God gap," the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, urged the government to exercise caution in making sure to "respect, not exploit religion."
"Understanding religions' role in different lands is one thing. However, seeking to shape, direct, or influence religion's role anywhere is not the business of the United States government," Gaddy noted in a blog posting.
"Thinking that any government--especially ours--can and/or should use religion as a foreign affairs strategy is a prelude to disaster," he continued. "The foundational principle of religious liberty merits our government's strong support abroad as well as at home even if other governments fail to appreciate or duplicate a similar commitment."
The "Engaging Religious Communities Abroad" report was authored by a 32-member task force including co-chairs Scott Appleby, the John M. Regan Director of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; and Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.