An Easter Foreign-Policy Lesson

There’s nothing like a double-barreled Holy Week/Passover to send media flacks leaping for “hooks” of relevance. Here’s my nominee for Most Dubious Holy Week Tie-in—an article from the august Council on Foreign Relations which documents, the email release promises me, how:

[W]hile Obama is by all accounts religious, that faith has not resulted in real foreign policy gains. "Rhetoric is important, but direct action grounds real diplomacy. And on that front, the White House has not kept up with the issue," Preston writes.

‘Cause the first thing you thought when Rick Santorum questioned whether Obama actually was a Christian, and said his theology was “phony,” was, No, Rick, Obama’s faith is an important tool of American foreign-policy efforts to exercise hegemony express American values in the global arena.

Of course what’s funny is that, when the author wants Obama to turn from words to deeds, what does he point to as an effective example? A speech by Franklin Roosevelt. A great speech, but still.

My colleague at the National Security Network James Lamond points out the irony that, while Obama is still accused in far-right circle of being a “secret Muslim”—and rhetoric in more allegedly mainstream circles tries to point to that smear without actually saying the words—the most Islamist of Egypt’s current presidential candidates is being accused of being a “secret American,” and in danger of being declared ineligible to run because ... his mother held an American passport.

Actually, if the president’s engagement with progressive Christianity—with its long tradition of deep immersion in the texts that traditionalists revere, and critiquing/challenging/reconstructing them from a position of deep reverence—were better-understood in other societies, imagine the message of solidarity that would send about a society that has space for so many different ways of approaching God. To the women leaders of the Arab Spring, who have challenged traditional interpretations of the Koran’s dictums on women. For the Orthodox Israeli women who refuse to let the ultra-Orthodox banish them to the back of the bus, literally. For the African Christians who are pushing to change church attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

The theology of both Easter and Passover is about taking the worst that you can be handed—death on a cross, forty years in a desert—and pulling out of it, ahistorically, lessons of rebirth and a belief in the possibility of renewal.

Faith in that possibility—whether it comes from a belief in a higher power or the perfectability of humanity, or the beauty of the natural cycle—is something I want our leaders to have. That faith isn’t measured, though, in how many appointments to the Commission on International Religious Freedom you make, or even by how many times you meet with the Dalai Lama. It’s measured by how many times you make choices that open up the possibility of rebirth and renewal for others.

Speaking of belief in the possibility of improvement, I’m off to a commission on preventing mass killing and genocide. Here endeth the lesson.

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