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Faith in diplomacy -- it's constitutional

Within the U.S., the separation of church and state is legally mandated, but there's no such ban on the government becoming involved in religious activities abroad.

July 24, 2009

If the federal government used taxpayer funds to construct houses of worship in this country, it would blow a gaping hole in the 1st Amendment's separation of church and state. But is the Constitution also violated when U.S. officials abroad pay for a mosque or endorse religious activities in the furtherance of this nation's foreign policy? Our answer is no, but policymakers still need to be cautious about mixing religion and diplomacy.

The issue of foreign "faith-based initiatives" surfaced Wednesday with a report by the inspector general of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The report raised questions about several USAID expenditures during the Bush administration, including $325,000 for the rehabilitation of four mosques in Fallouja, Iraq, the site of a major U.S. military operation in 2004, and the use of instructional materials, including biblical references, in an anti-AIDS program that encourages sexual abstinence in Africa.

The inspector general determined that "some USAID-awarded funds were used for religious activities." The agency disputed that, claiming that rehabilitating the mosques served the secular purpose of reconstructing war-scarred Iraqi institutions. As for religious references in pro-abstinence materials, USAID said it stopped allowing "religiously infused" curricula after the Justice Department expressed legal qualms. These responses raise a larger question: Whether the "wall of separation" between church and state -- a term coined by Thomas Jefferson -- extends beyond the shores of the United States. Both constitutional and practical considerations suggest it doesn't.

The Supreme Court hasn't ruled that the 1st Amendment's establishment clause reaches outside U.S. borders. In 1991, a federal appeals court did come to that conclusion but allowed exceptions if the government had a "compelling reason" to aid religious institutions abroad.

The U.S. is blessed by a Constitution that prohibits "establishment" of religion, which the Supreme Court rightly has defined not only as the creation of a state church but also a state subsidy for religion. That's not the law, or the tradition, in much of the rest of the world, including Iraq. Foreign policy considerations should allow Washington to engage and even aid religious institutions in those countries in ways that would be forbidden here.

Such activities, in our view, need not be limited to the rebuilding of churches or mosques destroyed in combat involving U.S. forces. Such reparations make sense, but so do other interactions between this country and the representatives of foreign religious institutions. The most obvious example is the Islamic world, where building bridges to moderate Muslims is a central goal of U.S. foreign policy. It would be perverse to interpret the 1st Amendment as prohibiting the U.S. from subsidizing an Islamic school for girls in Afghanistan.

Caution is key in matters of faith, as President Bush discovered when he inflamed passions in the Middle East by referring to the war on terror as a "crusade." It would be equally unwise for Washington to subsidize aggressive proselytizing by American missionaries, a source of serious tension in some Islamic countries. But in a world in which religion is often inseparable from politics, diplomacy can't always be conducted from behind Jefferson's wall.

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