Op-Ed: Religious literacy is an integral part of international relations

If over 80 percent of the world identifies with a religion, why do government and business leaders often lack an understanding of its impact on society? Certainly, there are good reasons for why this is the case. Since most secular constitutions guarantee a government that is free of church influence, it is easier to ignore religion than to work to understand it. Furthermore, since many narratives of secularism support the idea that religion is a private affair, many treat it as irrelevant to leadership in the modern world.

But despite predictions that religion would become less relevant as secular democracies and science proliferate, many regions are increasing in terms of religiosity. As religion continues to exert major cultural and political influence in the 21st century, being religiously literate is an essential part of developing a comprehensive and sensitive worldview.

Religious literacy, as defined by Diane L. Moore of the Harvard Religious Literacy Project, is the ability to analyze the intersections between religion and social, political and cultural life. The framework challenges the practice of studying belief systems in isolation, encouraging the understanding of religion as fundamentally interwoven into culture and society. A religiously literate person has a basic understanding of several world religions and has competency in discussing the role of religion in politics, society and culture across time and place.

In 2015, students at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy founded the Fletcher Initiative on Religion, Law and Diplomacy (RLD) to address the insufficient discussion of religion in the context of international affairs and global politics. The initiative aims to expand the discussion beyond how it is commonly discussed in relation to counterterrorism and countering violent extremism.

A key intersection of religion and international relations can be found in the way religion is often used to both support and challenge the moral legitimacy of an institution. For example, Christianity played a pervasive role in shaping Africa, from the Atlantic slave trade to South African apartheid.

The church was vital in providing narratives of moral justification for slavery, as slave traders often cited Christian scripture in the process of dehumanizing and enslaving Africans. But while scripture was used to justify the institution of slavery, the same texts, read differently, served as cornerstones of abolition. In 1696, Quakers became some of the earliest abolitionists and slaves themselves were empowered by biblical stories in their struggle for freedom.

Similarly, South African theologians cited readings of Christian scripture to provide moral justification for apartheid. Claiming that the Bible taught humankind to be separated into distinct races, each with their own land, Reformed Dutch theologians constructed the narrative that apartheid was pleasing to God. But as with ending slavery, the movement that brought freedom to black South Africans was shaped by the same faith as their oppressors. Influential religious leaders, such as the Desmond Tutu, stood on their religious convictions to condemn apartheid as a grave sin against humanity, which was instrumental in mobilizing international sympathy for liberation.

Not only did Christianity play a multifaceted role in shaping Africa, it is also impossible to point to any denominations as being the saints or sinners of history. Slavery apologists and abolitionists coexisted in many congregations, as did South Africans who supported and opposed apartheid, illustrating the inconsistent and complicated nature of religion as a moral influencer. Even at the height of advocating abolition, many Quaker houses refused to accept Africans into their communities.

Across history, religion idiosyncratically inspires both support and opposition for institutions, economic theories, public policy and geopolitical issues. Religion has the power to simultaneously preserve socially normative beliefs and champion the cause of the marginalized.

However, religion in international relations goes far beyond serving as moral frameworks, as it plays a role in driving international commerce as well. For instance, firms doing business in the Middle East and North Africa often work with Islamic banks, which are growing at the rate of nearly 20 percent per year.

In the international business hubs of Amman, Doha and Dubai, financial institutions are held to Sharia principles. Unlike conventional banks, Islamic banks do not charge late payments or interest, and they have far stricter guidelines about speculative investments. As the popularity of Islamic banks grows beyond the Middle East, IMF economists have noted the wide appeal of the Islamic principles governing fiscal equity, participation and ownership. For a 21st century businessperson, religious literacy is crucial to understanding the cultural context and underpinning for Islamic finance.

While the scope of religion’s influence is expansive and complex, through the lens of religious literacy we can begin to understand the ways in which religion is inextricably woven into the human experience.

UPDATE: This op-ed has been updated to clarify Chang’s position on religion’s importance to contemporary leadership.