Foreign Policy and the Establishment of Religion

by Paul R. Pillar
The opening line of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. It is no accident that this prohibition has pride of place in the Bill of Rights. It is fundamental to the founding of the republic. Several of the American colonies were founded by people seeking to escape the bonds of established religion. The establishment clause reflects the Enlightenment concept that the common good is best advanced through the free exchange of ideas, unconstrained by dogma from revealed religion or any other source outside the civic culture of the republic itself. Most important, it is intrinsic to the concept that the United States shall not be identified in ethnic or sectarian terms but instead will represent interests common to all its citizens, however diverse their origins and faiths.
Note that the constitutional language refers not just to the freedom to practice one’s religion but first of all to keeping government out of religion, which is what “establishment” in this context means. The Founding Fathers understood that it is impossible to separate entirely individual religious freedom from the consequences of government endorsement or sponsorship of specific religions. But that was not the only reason for the establishment clause. Indeed, there have been examples, such as the Ottoman Empire, of a state with an established religion that nonetheless granted members of other faiths considerable freedom to worship. Prohibiting establishment of a religion is important above all to uphold the principle that the government of the United States should act on behalf of U.S. national interests and not act according to religious beliefs shared by only some of its citizens.
Litigation involving the establishment clause has focused primarily on domestic matters. These have included egregious violations of the clause, such as a public official erecting on public grounds a monument with the Ten Commandments. They also have included matters on which a plausible case can be made on each side, involving taxpayer funds used to assist a religious organization in achieving a non-religious purpose such as making a playground safer. But the principle involved applies as well to foreign policy. In foreign relations as in domestic matters, the U.S. government should be acting to advance U.S. national interests and should not be steered by any one set of religious beliefs.
Religion in Policy Toward the Middle East
Current U.S. foreign policy violates that principle. The violation is most apparent with an issue that has heavily engaged U.S. foreign policy and that has heavy religious undertones: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. bias toward the Israeli side in that conflict—a bias that the Trump administration has carried to extremes—has multiple roots. These include several emotional, political, and historical factors, and, yes, include money. But they also include the direct application of personal religious beliefs by U.S. policymakers.
That application especially involves Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian who is unabashed about drawing no lines between his personal religious beliefs and his public duties. (And Pompeo may not even be the senior member of the administration who most conspicuously wears his religion on his sleeve—that distinction going to Vice President Mike Pence.) Pompeo has said that the Bible “informs everything I do.” The interviewer who recorded that quotation noticed that a well-used copy of the book lay open on a table in Pompeo’s office. Pompeo has spoken publicly about the “rapture” and appears to subscribe to the belief, held by many Evangelical Christians, that a triumph of Israel is a necessary precursor to fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
In a televised interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pompeo said of a recent visit to Israel, “It was special for me as a Christian…to show the commitment the United States has to this democracy, this Jewish nation of Israel.” When the interviewer asked whether President Trump is filling the role of the biblical Queen Esther, “to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace,” Pompeo replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible…I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
This month David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer whom Trump appointed as ambassador to Israel, made a public comment from his Orthodox Jewish perspective that resembled Pompeo’s remarks from his Evangelical Christian perspective. “Israel has one secret weapon that not too many countries have,” Friedman said. “Israel is on the side of God.”
U.S. national interests would be served by a policy that promotes a fair and equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby reducing the violence, infringements of human rights, export of extremism, and antagonism toward the United States that perpetuation of the conflict has entailed. The much different policy currently in effect, motivated in part by religious objectives and prophecies, directly undermines those interests.
The fundamentalist duo of Pompeo and Friedman most recently offered an op ed attempting to rationalize the administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. The acceptance of this acquisition of territory through military force flouts the overwhelming sense of the international community, substitutes a destructive might-makes-right doctrine for the applicable principles of international law, and vitiates any U.S. opposition to another state’s seizing of territory through military force. Regardless of the terms in which the rationalization is phrased, religious motivations are surely not far behind. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer debunked Pompeo and Friedman’s assertions about the negotiating history concerning the Golan and explained the administration’s recognition decision this way: “Ideological support for Israeli territorial expansion and the courting of American Jewish and Christian Evangelical voters is now driving American foreign policy—bad foreign policy that has created problems, not solved them.”
Other Bias
Religious bias is exhibited in other aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign relations, perhaps most notably with the Muslim travel ban. That issue, however, has not been accompanied by undiluted, Bible-open-in-the-office professions of religious belief such as what Pompeo has said about Israel, because the belief would have to be expressed in negative terms about someone else’s religion and that usually would be considered too impolitic even for the current cast of policymakers.
How the positive and negative sides of religious commitment can be two sides of the same coin was illustrated by the case several years ago (and thus having nothing to do with the Trump administration) of Army Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a fervent fundamentalist Christian whose religiously-infused off-script comments got him in some trouble. Boykin declared that Islamic terrorists hate the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundations and our roots are Judeo-Christian.” He repeatedly characterized the George W. Bush administration’s “War on Terror” as a religious battle between good Christians and evil non-Christians. He stated in a speech about how he captured a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”
Boykin was mildly disciplined for his outspokenness, but the negative side is never far from the positive side when religious beliefs are applied to public policy by policymakers who are better able than the general to hold their tongues when they need to. The assertion that one side in a conflict is holy imputes evil to the other side. As veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi remarked about Friedman’s “Israel is on the side of God” comment, “Where does that place the rest of the world?” In the past, Pompeo has spoken of counterterrorism in religious-war terms that made him sound much like Boykin. He told a Kansas church group in 2014 that Muslim terrorists “abhor Christians and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior is truly the only solution for our world.”
The establishment clause has been an issue in litigation on the Muslim travel ban, although procedural issues also have been a basis for suits against it and a conservative Supreme Court majority, voting along the usual partisan lines in a 5-4 decision, refused to strike down the ban. Litigation based on the establishment clause that aims against foreign policies such as the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unlikely to go anywhere for several reasons: judicial deference to the executive in foreign policy, multiple motives underlying the policies in question, and likely difficulties in establishing standing to sue. But such policies, insofar as they involve religious motivations, are as much a violation of the important principle underlying the establishment clause as is a Ten Commandments monument on a courthouse lawn. And the harm to U.S. national interests is significantly greater.

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Launched by Inter Press Service (IPS) in 2007, LobeLog was headed by Jim Lobe, the IPS Washington DC bureau chief from 1980 to 1984 and from 1989 to 2015. Lobelog is the only weblog to have received the prestigious Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs (2015) from the American Academy of Diplomacy. Initially focused on neoconservatives and their influence on US foreign policy, it gradually broadened its scope to feature analyses of U.S. policy toward the Greater Middle East with an emphasis on Iran, Israel-Palestine, and the Persian Gulf states more generally.