PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER
BY EDWARD PENTIN
January 20-26, 2008 Issue
Douglas Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, an organization that aims to incorporate religion in diplomacy.
An evangelical Protestant, Johnston is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard University and was director of policy planning and management in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His latest book is Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (2003).
Johnston spoke recently with Edward Pentin while on a visit to the Vatican at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
What is the mission of your organization?
The mission is to address identity-based conflicts that exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy and more often than not these take the form of ethnic conflict, tribal warfare, religious hostilities and the like. We do this by practicing faith-based diplomacy.
What that really means is incorporating religious considerations in the practice of international politics — more simply put, it means making religion part of the solution in these difficult conflict areas.
What prompted you to start this organization?
We sensed a gap in terms of our own policies and diplomacy — not incorporating religion or religious considerations to the degree that they should. For more than 1,000 years now, we in the West and Islam have been speaking past one another, alternately resorting to conflict to settle our differences.
Some of that has to do with the fact that we speak different languages. We speak the language of separation of church and state. Islam speaks of the language of integration of religion and politics.
Even when we use the same words we sometimes give them different meanings. We say secular, they hear godless, whereas what was intended was freedom to worship as you please. The reason they say godless is because of the cultural image we project sometimes.
It was to help bridge this gap that we established the center to see if we could bring a mutual understanding that doesn’t exist right now.
What are the challenges to fulfilling your mission?
The challenges are very substantial, but one of the things that we have found is that faith-based diplomacy truly resonates with Islam because, as I say, they speak of the integration of religion and politics. To some extent I’ve sensed there’s almost a discomfort, if not resentment, on the part of many Muslims in dealing with many secular constructs.
So when you can weave your faith into those discussions in ways that make them feel comfortable because that’s what they think they’re about and rightly so, then it tends to work.
Is this a case of putting yourselves in their shoes?
Exactly. We come from a posture of believing fundamentally that anyone, on any given side in a conflict, is not bad and even those who are bad aren’t bad all the time. So we try to play to the angels of their higher nature by bringing the transcendent aspects of their personal religious faith to bear in overcoming those secular obstacles to peace.
You’ve had some notable successes in Sudan.
We did have some good success there in forming an interreligious council which meets monthly, where the top religious leaders work to resolve their problems. It has accomplished many concrete, measurable benefits particularly for non-Muslims but also for Muslims as well.
Under the auspices of that council a committee to protect religious freedom has been created which is bringing accountability to that very sensitive area as well.
You’re here to meet Vatican officials. What is your strategy?
Our strategy is really one of opportunism. As we see opportunities come along, we make decisions, and use several criteria in determining where we will engage.
First is doing the most good for the most people; second is where we can find relationships of trust that already exist to which we have access and which can be brought to bear on the problem. It may have strategic consequence to the United States because this is I think the best way to impress upon our own government the need for thoughtful responses to religious imperatives.
Third, we tend to go where others aren’t. We’re so small that we tend to have an added value impact — we actually seek places where not many people are working.
How would you like the Vatican to help you?
Well just for the Vatican to be informed about different situations where we would be able to call upon them to help. We have one initiative under way where we would like to bring Iran and the United States to a more cooperative relationship and we think that the Vatican could possibly provide a venue for this initiative. So there’s any number of ways that one can capitalize on the very strong convening authority of the Holy See and to marry it with these opportunities, if you will.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.