The Straw that Stirs the Drink: The Implications of Resurgent Religion for Strategists and Policy Makers

isis-terrorists

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am being published in the most recent issue of Campaigning: The Journal of the Joint Forces Staff College. The article will be available along with the rest of the journal at the website of the college, but I am posting it here. It is an interesting topic since religion is raising its head in numerous conflicts around the world, and is a very real part of the contemporary American political climate. Note, the pictures are not included in the Campaigning issue.

I hope that you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

One can never separate war and the means by which it is fought from its political ends. There are, however, many societies whose language and religious ideology shape the leader’s political ends. To borrow the immortal words of legendary baseball slugger Reggie Jackson, religion is often “the straw that stirs the drink.” The fact that religious ideologies influence societies and international relations is not new, but after almost three centuries of decline the twenty-first century promises to begin a new age of religious influence. Samuel Huntington notes, “Western secular models of the state are being challenged and replaced”[1] in many nations as religious influence grows. The indicators of this shift, religious, cultural, and racial, are glaringly obvious in the Middle East but clearly present in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Balkans, India, Latin America, and the United States, and threaten to subvert Western secular models of the state.

According to Clausewitz, war is an extension or continuation of politics. Clausewitz, a product of classic German Liberalism, understood the term politics in light of the German concept Weltanschauung, which translates as “World View.” The term is not limited to a particular doctrine or the ideology of party politics, but it encompasses the worldview of a people or culture and includes religion. Religious leaders, as well as media outlets and politicians, use a world view to influence their populatio. In fact, the world view is often crucial in the decision by a people to go to war, their rationale for going to war, whom they war against, the means for conducting war, and the end state they envision from warring.

image.adapt.960.high

Because Weltanschauung includes all elements of culture, to include race, religion, and economy, as well as sociological and historical factors; religious leaders, as well as media outlets and politicians, use it to manipulate their people. Radical proponents of religious fundamentalism around the world, who reject the pluralities of modernism and science, skillfully “use each new method of communication” [2] to spread their message of fear in a dualistic manner  to influence those most vulnerable to the threat of change.

Modern Americans and Western European policy makers tend to look at the world, and issues of politics and policy in isolation from each other, and especially in isolation from religion. Such an atomistic method ensures that many policy makers cannot see the forest for the trees. This is particularly true when religion is a motivating factor and an ideological component of conflict. Religiously based ideology is a powerful and “often intractable force that can be quite unresponsive to all the instrumentalities of state power, let alone the instrumentalities of foreign policy,” [3] and has been so from the advent of civilization to the present day. Samuel Huntington observed, “To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other….” [4]

Even among religions that claim to worship the same god beliefs may differ, and that fact underscores Colin Gray’s all important, “contexts of war.” Gray makes the case for seven essential contexts policy makers and military leaders must understand regarding war that “can have strong negative consequences,” [5] if ignored or misunderstood.

Each of the contexts is associated with the manner of social development, and define the essential characteristics of a particular armed conflict. In many areas of the world religion functions as the “central political pillar maintaining the power of [the] ruler—a major pole in determining people’s loyalty—and as a key ingredient in determining a nation’s stability or instability.” [6] Religion and religious values remain instrumental to the ethics and the social norms of a society and dictate how it deals with other nations and peoples, as well as how it conducts war.

Over the course of the last three centuries the emphasis on rational and empirical thought predisposed western strategists and policy makers to exclude religion as a component of analysis. Furthermore, the scientific methodology used by many analysts dictates that they asses individual components of issues in isolation from each other, and often without connection to their opponent’s world view. Experts dissect economic factors, military capabilities, existing political systems, diplomatic considerations, and the ways societies gather information and exhaustively examine and evaluate each individual component. But the problem comes when policymakers fail to understand how world view, ideological factors, history, and religious belief impact how a given opponent will conduct war.

ISIS-MAP

In part, policy makers tend to interpret information through their own worldview. As Gray notes, “Policy and strategy will be influenced by the cultural preferences bequeathed by a community’s unique interpretation of its history as well as by its geopolitical-geostrategic context.” [7] As such, both military and civilian policy makers fail to address the criticality of religion to developing effective strategy. Barbara Tuchman wrote, “When information is relayed to policy-makers, they respond in terms of what is already inside their heads and consequently make policy less to fit the facts than to fit the notions and intentions formed out of the mental baggage that has accumulated in their minds since childhood.” [8] A world view imposes cultural prejudices and blinders on western policy makers and strategists, that predispose them to look for shortcuts, or the most convenient explanations selected from the information they can see. Edward Luttwak wrote:

Enlightenment prejudice has remained amply manifest in the contemporary professional analysis of foreign affairs. Policymakers, diplomats, journalists, and scholars who are ready to overinterpret economic causality, who are apt to dissect social differentiations most finely, and who will minutely categorize political affiliations are still in the habit of disregarding the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivations in explaining politics and conflict, and even in reporting their concrete modalities. Equally the role of religious leaders, religious institutions, and religiously motivated lay figures in conflict resolution has also been disregarded – or treated as a marginal phenomenon hardly worth noting. [9]

Unbeknownst to policy makers, their prejudices, the world view blinders they wear, inhibit them from seeing how interconnected the most primal elements of the human experience are to others’ worldviews, even their own. As such, both military and civilian policy makers fail to address the criticality of religion to developing effective strategy.

Many people believed that modern ideas, “such as science, technology, secularism, and humanism would overcome the religious concept of the universe that dominated premodern society.” [10] Contemporary Western strategists and policy makers came to adulthood in a culture that supplanted the importance of religious ideas and need. A global, four-decade resurgence of religious ideals makes adaptation for strategists and planners difficult because of the dramatic shift in essential, unquestioned views. [11] Others’ worldviews, including religious beliefs, often influence the application of economic, political, diplomatic, military power, and the use and dissemination of information. That fact remains true despite the religion or sect involved, and especially in a decidedly secular, or at least outwardly non-religious, nation. Perhaps, by ignorance or a refusal to admit the importance of religious motivations in conflict, strategists and planners fail to realize the western culture arose from primal religious beliefs that informed politics, philosophy, ethics, law, economics, art, racial constructs, and science for nearly 1500 years. Perhaps, that refusal fueled a justified appall or embarrassment of the religious justifications their forbearers used to incite war that subjugated or exterminated peoples.

The United States Military made a belated attempt to address ideology, culture, and religion in terms of counter-insurgency doctrine when it published the U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Manual. The discussion of these issues is limited to two pages that specifically deal with various extreme Moslem groups that use religion as a pillar of their ideology, strategy, and operations. But the analysis in the counterinsurgency manual is limited because its focus is very general and at a tactical level. While the manual encourages leaders to attempt to understand the cultural differences it contains little to help leaders understand the importance of religion and ideology at the strategic and operational levels.

Commendably, the manual discusses how terrorist and insurgent groups use ideology, which is frequently based on religion to create a narrative. The narrative often involves a significant amount of myth presented as history, such as how Al Qaida and ISIL use the Caliphate as a religious and political ideal that for many Moslems, “produces a positive image of the golden age of Islamic civilization.” [12]

A purely intellectual understanding of how Al Qaida and ISIL use symbolism and imagery limits how strategists and planners can develop methods to counter it. Rather, strategists and planners would benefit from a historical introspection that leads to a personal reflection, aimed at understanding how the theological tools of the Christian religion subjugated peoples and the ramifications today. Protestant Christianity, particularly the Puritan concept of “a city set on a hill” undergirded the American belief in the nation’s Manifest Destiny, which in large part led to the extermination of the Native Americans, the War with Mexico, the romanticism of the ante-bellum American South, the belief that African Americans were sub-human, and that God ordained slavery. The concept persisted after the Civil War in the myth of the Lost Cause, and was exported abroad as the United States belatedly entered the race for overseas colonies.

Manife4

The concept of Manifest Destiny is still an essential element of the idea of American Exceptionalism, which often justifies much of American foreign policy. Former President George W. Bush alluded to this idea in his 2003 State of the Union Address where he said, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” [13] Throughout the Bush presidency, the President’s idea that God undergirded the policy of the United States led to a mismatch of policy ends and the means to accomplish them. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and historian Michael Oren wrote:

Not inadvertently did Bush describe the struggle against Islamic terror as a ‘crusade to rid the world of evildoers.’ Along with this religious zeal, however, the president espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives…who preached the Middle East’s redemption through democracy. The merging of the sacred and the civic missions in Bush’s mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush in favor of war. [14]

Only when policy makers and strategists understand that the use of religious ideology to conquer, subjugate, and terrorize in the name of God is universal, does it become easier to defeat those who employ it.

American Presidents often invoke the name of God to justify the compulsion to conquer, such as McKinley did when he decided to annex the Philippines in 1899 following the defeat of the Spanish. The war against the Filipinos used some of the most bloodthirsty tactics employed to fight the Filipino insurgents, who only wanted independence, and stained our own national honor. Mark Twain wrote: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . . .” [15]

A doubtlessly sincere McKinley sought counsel from God about whether he should annex the Philippines or not. Barbara Tuchman wrote: “He went down on his knees, according to his own account, and ‘prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance’. He was accordingly guided to conclude “that there was nothing left to do for us but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos. And uplift and civilize and Christianize them, by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ died.” [16]

The counterinsurgency manual does mention how “Ideology provides a prism, including a vocabulary and analytical categories, through which followers perceive their situation.” [17] But again, it does this at a micro-level and the lessons are not applied at the higher levels of strategic thinking and policy. This is often due to the fact that American and other western strategists and policy makers view religion “as a set of theological issues rather than as a profoundly political influence in public life.”[18] Even after nearly a decade and a half of unremitting war against enemies for whom religion is at the center of their politics, policy makers still misread or neglect the importance of religion and religiously based ideology in the political motivations of their opponents. In many cases, the religion of a people is a stronger part of their identity than that of the state. Nations created during the post-colonial era “continue to see religion, clan, ethnicity, and other such factors as the markers of community identity” [19] Despite the advances in communications and technology and the globalization of so many western concepts, the political and religious leaders of Islamic nations view modern western political and social concepts as unwanted intrusions on their ancient cultures, and more importantly, insults to their religion.

kim davis pastor

But, lest American policy makers and strategists see this rise as something completely foreign, a similar phenomenon is occurring in the United States. Despite the fact that a growing number of Americans espouse no-religious preference and, according to multiple studies conducted over a period of two decades, are leaving organized Christianity, adherents of two highly motivated and militant branches of Christianity have grown in strength and political power over the last forty years. The group known as Christian Dominionism advocates Christian domination of all parts of society and culture, and Pre-Millennial Dispensationalists believe in the imminent return of Christ to earth, including the belief that most of the earth’s population will be killed during the Apocalypse. A Pew Research Center survey found that by the year 2050, that 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth. [20] Leaders, politicians (including major conservative presidential hopefuls), pundits, and preachers often weigh in on public policy, to include military strategy, and claim that God’s law supersedes that of the state. They simultaneously reject secularism while legislating against those they deem enemies, and advocate for a “holy war” against Islam without distinction to Islam’s own divisions and distinctive denominational differences.

may appear irrational American strategists and policy makers, but it is completely rational to those who subscribe to it. The study of history, particularly how the deep roots of religion and faith shape cultural worldviews, as well as the actions of various peoples and nations, helps the policy maker and strategist adapt policy, strategy, and ultimately operational and tactical methods to the context of the conflict at hand. To do this effectively it is important that American strategists not be afraid to examine our own past to see how our ancestors used religion for good as well as for evil. However, the often dark mirror of history can be disconcerting to peer into. People tend to be uncomfortable when the face that they see in the mirror is all too similar to their current enemies, to the point that one might turn away in fear of what they see. The inability to look into the dark mirror of our own history is especially perilous when enemies are perfectly willing to wage war without end unto the destruction of the world in the name of their God, because when you belatedly look back in the mirror, failure will be staring you right in the face.

Notes

[1] Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We? America’s Great Debate The Free Press, Simon and Schuster Europe, London 2004 p.360

[2] Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason Revised and Updated Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, New York 2008 p.18

[3] Luttwak, Edward. The Missing Dimension  in Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft  Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1994 p.13  

[4] Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.42

[5] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.5

[6] Rubin, Barry Religion in International Affairs in Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft  Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1994 pp.20-21

[7] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.25

[8] Tuchman, Barbara W. Practicing History Alfred A. Knopf, New Your 1981 p.289

[9] Ibid Luttwak The Missing Dimension pp.9-10

[10] Ibid. Rubin Religion in International Affairs p.21

[11] Ibid. Rubin Religion in International Affairs p.21

[12] ___________ U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 15 December 2006 with and forward by General David A Petraeus and General James Amos, Konecky and Konecky, Old Saybrook CT 2007 p.26

[13] Bush, George W. State of the Union Address Washington D.C. January 28th 2003 retrieved from Presidential Rhetoric.com http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.28.03.html 10 June 2015

[14] Oren, Michael Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2007 p.584

[15] Twain, Mark To the Person Sitting in Darkness February 1901 Retrieved from The World of 1898: The Spanish American War The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html 12 December 2014

[16] Ibid. Tuchman Practicing History p.289

[17] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[18] Ibid. Rubin Religion in International Affairs in Religion p.20

[19] Ibid. Rubin Religion in International Affairs p.22

[20] Pew Research Center, U.S. Politics and Policy, http://www.people-press.org/2010/06/22/public-sees-a-future-full-of-promise-and-peril/

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, national security, News and current events, Religion

8 responses to “The Straw that Stirs the Drink: The Implications of Resurgent Religion for Strategists and Policy Makers

  1. “Only when policy makers and strategists understand that the use of religious ideology to conquer, subjugate, and terrorize in the name of God is universal, does it become easier to defeat those who employ it.”

    Yes!

    Brilliant essay. This should be required reading for our political, diplomatic, intelligence and military leaders, however the ability to self-reflect with any degree of intellectual or moral honesty is something so lacking in Washington, DC that I’m afraid it would be a waste of electrons, ink and paper.

    Thank you Padre.

  2. Reblogged this on Matthew Hoh and commented:
    For those so inclined this is one of the more insightful perspectives on religion in diplomatic and military world affairs I have read.

    By the way, I read Padre Steve’s take on world affairs, history, veterans issues, religion and baseball daily.

  3. Well said Padre. Thank you for being you.

    rob

  4. Currently I’m reading “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer. I’ve noticed myself a lot of what he writes about. Have you read this book? If so what do you think about it?

  5. Great article Padre.

    “People tend to be uncomfortable when the face that they see in the mirror is all too similar to their current enemies, to the point that one might turn away in fear of what they see. The inability to look into the dark mirror of our own history is especially perilous when enemies are perfectly willing to wage war without end unto the destruction of the world in the name of their God, because when you belatedly look back in the mirror, failure will be staring you right in the face.”

    In America, if we dare look, we will undoubtedly agree with Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” David Montgomery has written an amazing essay that focuses like a laser without any semblance of rose-colored glasses on all political regimes with particularity on our (American) own. The warts he illuminates are big and ugly, but if the furtherance of nonviolence interests you, this is an essay you won’t want to miss. And it isn’t only critical by any means, for it offers more realistic solutions to the problem of violence than you can shake a stick at. You will find it is on the web here: .https://bananas.liberty.me/escape-the-worlds-biggest-racket-politics-and-the-age-of-decentralization/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s