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Currently I’m on a train returning from New York where I attended the Council on Foreign Relations’ annual Summer workshop on religion and foreign policy. Participants include a wide range of American religious leaders. Frustratingly, the event was off the record so I can’t reveal who they were!

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Founded in the wake of World War I as a think tank to guide America’s foreign policy, CFR’s members have included many secretaries of state and scores of prominent policy makers across the decades. It helped to elevate such luminaries as John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger. Conspiracy theories have often assailed it as the power tool of the northeastern elite, especially the Rockefellers. I remember the 1980 presidential campaign when George H. W. Bush was attacked from the right for his membership.

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Suitably, CFR is headquartered in a stately old Manhattan mansion. There is a portrait of its former board chair David Rockefeller inside, which the conspiracists would enjoy. To its credit, CFR realizes the importance of religion in shaping the world and in recent years has focused on educating religious leaders about international affairs. The staff are very helpful and courteous.

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Participants at CFR’s Summer religion workshop typically include well known current and former denominational officers, bishops and other senior clergy, advocacy and relief group heads, academics, scholars, journalists, and longtime activists. Many of them are liberal and a little disdainful of America’s religious traditionalists in fly over country. But most are gracious in personal interactions. CFR clearly has worked to include conservative religious types as well.

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Overall I think CFR influence on religious elites is helpful, often reminding them of the world’s cold realities versus their all too often dreamy idealizations. In one revealing exchange, a participant wondered if an Iranian religious proclamation against nuclear weapons would not preclude nukes. He was assured that U.S. policy could not depend on that assumption.

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I was able to thank a church official whom IRD often criticizes for helpfully opposing anti Israel divestment. I’ve also been able to befriend the head of a liberal IRD counterpart group and long time nemesis. I’ve met Mormon, Muslim, and Jewish leaders whom I would not otherwise typically encounter, not to mention numerous liberal Protestants and ecumenists. It’s impossible not to learn something important from even brief encounters with adversaries or unexpected new friends.

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The kaleidoscope of American religious opinion present at these CFR gatherings at least slightly showcases the underlying strength and importance of faith in every aspect of America’s identity.