Religion, world affairs and the ethics of war
CAMDEN (Feb 26): There were reasons, more than 400 years ago, that European diplomats attempted to push religion aside as they began the delicate task of building international relations following decades of religious wars and Conflicts during the 16th and 17th centuries had wiped out a third of the population in Europe and decision makers in 1648 agreed to wall off religious convictions from international politics, recognizing in some fashion that political intolerance and religious wars had failed the continent.
That rising tolerance of diversity and pluralism, that the "world is a world of sovereign states," said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir on Friday, rooted U.S. foreign policy, and today underpins global relations and international law. It followed with a century of democratic revolutions and the development of international relations that minimized religion.
The 2008 Camden Conference comprised three days of events, beginning with the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir's keynote address on "Religion, World Politics and the U.S. Foreign Policy." On Saturday, attendees heard from Andrew Preston of Cambridge University on religious influences on American foreign relations; Scott Appleby of Notre Dame University on the role of fundamentalists in recent U.S. foreign policy; Andrew Natsios, a Georgetown University professor, on the influence of religion in American diplomacy; Philip Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace on religious identities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Rend Al-Rahim Francke of the Iraq Foundation on the clash between Sunnis and Shias across the Middle East; and Ellen Laipson of the Henry Stimson Center on the struggle between modern governance and resurgent Islam. On Sunday, Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University discussed religious and ethical challenges in seeking global social justice; and Douglas Johnston of the International Institute for Religion and Diplomacy talked about faith-based diplomacy.
Hehir spoke Friday night at the Camden Opera House, offering the keynote address for the 2008 Camden Conference, an annual winter gathering to exchange ideas on key global issues. This year, the theme was "Religion as a Force in World Affairs" -- a "capacious topic" said Hehir, as he welcomed attendees from the eastern seaboard and as far west as Arizona and Texas gathered during yet another Maine snowstorm.
The 1648 agreement ironed out in Westphalia, Germany, among European states established that individual countries and citizens could determine their own religions, and practice them in peace, Hehir said. Westphalia grounded the idea of noninterference in national affairs, and by extension, that religion was not considered a primary factor in balancing global affairs.
Times have change, Hehir said, with the manifestation of liberation theology, the Iranian revolt in 1979, and the solidarity movement in Poland, all events that have been treated anecdotally, but never in the context of a larger theme of religious beliefs shaping world destinies.
Hehir cautioned that simplistically framing the discussion "has great hazards," but he delivered a general historical overview of how western countries have regarded religion as a player in shaping global politics and what the future might hold.
A scholar, Catholic priest and intellectual, Hehir analyzes not only religion and society, but also the relationship of ethics and foreign policy, and the ethics of war, or "just war."
While the 2008 Camden Conference, "Religion as a Force in World Affairs," gets tucked into camcasts and recordings to be made available at the conference website,
planning is now under way for the 2009 Camden Conference, "Looking Ahead: the U.S. Role in World Affairs." The conference "will gather one month after a new president of the U.S. has been sworn in," the Camden Conference organizers said. "The new president, following the Bush administration, will face formidable tasks in foreign policy. New leaders will have to define and implement coherent and effective strategies to promote our national interests and advance our values."
While Hehir, who is a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and who previously held such posts as adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference and director of the Harvard Divinity School, relegated his comments about the ethics of war to the end of his address, he told the audience, which included people listening to live broadcasts in Portland, Belfast and Rockland auditoriums, that the "war in Iraq is fundamentally mistaken."
He added that he did not have the same thought about Afghanistan.
A 2003 interview with him in Religion and Ethics Newsweekly qualified Hehir as "no pacifist," who "agrees that if an attack on us is really imminent, we should preempt it. But he worries that the new policy implies going beyond preemption to a broader policy of so-called preventive attack. He fears if we do that, others will too."
Following his Friday night keynote address, questions about preemptive strikes and use of force generated further discussion about current U.S. policies.
Asked about torture in the context of the ethics of war, Hehir responded, "the intentional killing of non-combatives is always wrong," and "torture is always wrong."
The 2008 Camden Conference drew hundreds from New England, the Northeast and western states to the annual nonpartisan, educational gathering, now 21 years old, whose mission is to foster informed discourse on world issues. (Photo by Lynda Clancy)
He also contended that such practices significantly affect not only those tortured but also those who torture. It is the destruction of human dignity, said Hehir.
Hehir described on Friday a world that since the 1960s has seen the expansion of other forces that move easily across national borders – corporations, "the Jesuits," and institutions, among them, the great religious traditions. With these changes come the necessity for creating space and legitimacy to include the role of religion in politics, he said.
But the world, in its post-Sept. 11 thinking, must not define religion as primarily or solely a negative source, or define religion in the discussion as a focus on only Islam. And in the United States, he said, religion in political discussions must not be defined exclusively as evangelicalism or fundamentalism.
The task requires a systematic assessment of the role of religion in the world, its ideas, institutions and communities, Hehir said. The analysis will help create an intellectual foundation to what already exists, and extend further to the ideas of social justice and emerging relief for societies affected by war.
Hehir was asked whether his training and background influenced his perspectives.
"I can't get out of my skin," he said. "I was educated in a tradition."
But he qualified that in his teaching, he regards his own thinking as but a piece in a larger setting.