The United States is a religious nation, but neither scholars of U.S. foreign policy nor its practitioners have taken religion very seriously. From the inception of international relations as a discrete discipline, its approach has been defined by the seventeenth-century Westphalian subordination of religion to the state. Consequently, as the international relations scholar Daniel Philpott has observed, most in the field have simply "assumed the absence of religion among the factors that influence states."
But the world today is, as the sociologist Peter Berger puts it, "as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever." Berger was one of the first scholars to challenge "secularization theory," which holds that religion will wither as modernity advances. In fact, over the past several decades, the opposite has happened. Faith, far from exiting the world's stage, has played a growing role in human affairs, even as modernization has proceeded apace. Iran's Shiite revolution in 1979, the Catholic Church's role in the "third wave" of democratization, the 9/11 attacks -- all illustrated just how important a global force religion has become. For the most part, however, analysts and policymakers have remained either ignorant or baffled. Scholars are now scrambling to reexamine the question of faith in international affairs -- its "return from exile," as one study puts it. Unfortunately, policymakers are lagging even further behind, and the implications for U.S. national interests are troubling.
To the extent that U.S. analysts and policymakers have registered the resurgence of religiosity at all, they have viewed it as a problem for U.S. foreign policy. Such concern is misguided. The United States should not see global desecularization in strictly defensive terms; it is as much an opportunity as it is a threat. Rather than being inimical to the advance of freedom, as many secularists assume, religious ideas and actors can buttress and expand ordered liberty. For much of the world, the religious quest lies at the heart of human dignity. History,
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