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Ironic Irrelevance: The U.S. National Security Strategy’s Lack of Strategy on Religion

  • Chris Seiple
  • March 4, 2015

The new U.S. National Security Strategy document, released last month, was ironic at many levels. In the world today, religion is clearly part of the problem — and just as clearly it is a necessary part of any sustainable solution. Yet the National Security Strategy doesn’t even acknowledge these critical realities, much less outline a coherent strategy for dealing with them.

The “strategy” seeks to lead by catalyzing “all the instruments of U.S. power,” but makes no mention of religious freedom — the practical capacity to live with our deepest differences across irreconcilable theologies — which, as Rhode Island founder Roger Williams already knew in the 1600s, would be integral to America’s security and social flourishing;

The document asks for “strategic patience” but does not match means with ends (the definition of strategy), leaving the U.S. without a roadmap toward the future the “strategy” seeks;

The document names several unfolding tragedies wracked by religion — e.g., the ISIS crisis, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Myanmar, and even Russia-Ukraine — but barely mentions religion, faith, or faith communities in its analysis, or presentation of solutions;

The U.S. actually has a strategy for religious engagement that focuses on advancing pluralism, promoting development, and mitigating conflict — exactly what is needed, now — but the national security “strategy” does not mention it; and,

The “strategy” does not name the essence of the primary threat facing the U.S. — terrorists motivated by their understanding of Islam — and therefore removes itself from a potential position to address it.

To be sure, including religious freedom and religious engagement in a national security strategy is not a panacea. Still, the nature of our times demands that any national security strategy worth the name will, at a bare minimum, address the faith factor as an element of analysis, if not seek its inclusion as a positive force for change.

Engaging the world as it is means calling it like it is, especially regarding the primary near-term threat that the U.S. faces: terrorists motivated by their understanding of Islam. As I wrote in 2010:

The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name. To pretend that this terrorism is not rooted in the terrorists’ own understanding of Islam is delusional. Furthermore, it is absolutely absurd that our national security dialogue and documents cannot have honest conversations about these facts and their implications for policy formation and implementation.

If the terrorists self-identify as religious, then we must understand them as they understand themselves. And that is this: they are faithful Muslims sanctioned to kill anyone who does not believe as they do in the re-establishment of a caliphate — even as we also recognize that the overwhelming majority of faithful Muslims worldwide consider the terrorists to be apocalyptic apostates. That said, there is no reason to validate the terrorists’ self-perception by using their name for themselves in the public discourse. Doing so only legitimizes their religious claim to the audiences that they are seeking to impact (mostly young Muslim males).

From a national security point of view, the most important question is whether our decision makers have conceptual and empirical clarity, leading to strategic wisdom. There were signs of a maturing approach in the way some of the key issues were framed at the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (where I spoke). There appears to be growing understanding that if Islam is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution. Indeed there are Muslim reformers who have long been at work trying to amplify and accelerate the ways in which Islam is part of the solution — which is one among many reasons why the advancement of religious freedom worldwide needs to be an integral part of a national security strategy.

The same part-of-the-problem/part-of-the-solution dynamic is true for other religions too, such as Buddhism in Myanmar. In fact this dynamic has been evident in different times and places for all faiths as they relate to the power of the state.

Christianity in the U.S. is no exception. As I have written elsewhere, we Americans struggle to remember sometimes that our own civil war was in large part about whose interpretation of scripture would prevail — an interpretation in which African-Americans deserved full dignity and equality as human beings or an interpretation that explicitly blessed slavery and implicitly blessed the terroristic violence employed to maintain it. We sometimes forget that it took another hundred years after the civil war before policy and practice actually began to change, as a Christian leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called America to reconciliation.

In other words, sustainable and positive change requires humility and wisdom: both in naming the issues at hand, and in developing consensus for an intentional strategy capable of being implemented.


Because we continue to live in a world where people kill for their religion and die for their faith.

And therefore we must find real strategies — matching means with ends — where the best of faith defeats the worst of religion.

For such an example, see King Abdullah II of Jordan. He is a descendant of Mohammed, and he repeatedly states that Christians are integral to the past, present, and future identity of the Middle East (as he did before the U.N. on September 24, 2014).

More recently, he was scheduled to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, but returned home when ISIS burned alive Jordan’s downed Air Force pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Instead, the King’s ambassador to the U.S. read his speech, a moving testimony of what it means to be a Muslim. It received a standing ovation (I was there).

King Abdullah II is fighting the evil of ISIS with hard power in the near-term, even as he sows the seed of sustainable peace for the long-term. For example, last summer, when the ISIS threat broke, King Abdullah made sure that there was room at the inn for Iraqi Christians fleeing ISIS, flying thousands from Iraq to the relative safety of Amman.

Indeed, the King told me personally in October that the region needs to ensure that Christians and other religious minorities do not leave, as there will be less stability in their absence. So he created an opportunity for them to live in Jordan until ISIS is defeated. From this conversation, The Cradle Fund was born, the mission of which is to rescue, restore, and return vulnerable minorities to a home where they can practice and live their faith freely.

This clear-eyed example of applying a hard/soft power mix — of living the best of one’s faith amidst the worst of religion — is precisely what any national security strategy these days must include.

If the U.S. national security strategy is to be relevant in a religious world, the U.S. would do well to return to its Roger Williams roots of religious freedom. The U.S. should learn from the best (and worst) of its own history, as well as leverage its many contemporary strategic assets in religious engagement and practical promotion of religious freedom.

About Chris Seiple

Chris Seiple is Principal Advisor for Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement. He is widely known and sought after for his decades of experience and expertise regarding issues at the intersection of geopolitics, US foreign policy, Asia, conflict resolution, human rights, and religion. He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023), co-edited with Dennis R. Hoover.

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