R. Scott Appleby: Of Fundamentalisms, Secular and Otherwise

Roundup: Historians' Take

[R. Scott Appleby is Professor of History and Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.]

The Task Force Report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy called for greater "religious literacy" across the "whole of government" and greater levels of interaction between nongovernmental institutions, American higher education and business, and select religious communities around the world. Not least, it urged the Obama dministration to bolster U.S. advocacy and enforcement of religious freedom around the world.

The question is: With what kind of religious communities, specifically, should the United States engage? To what ends?

Many Americans and Europeans are taken aback, to say the least, by our suggestion that collaborating with religious groups on matters of shared concern is a necessary element of advancing democratisation and prosperity in many parts of the world. They demand an answer: Is not religion the province of absolutism, intolerance and repression—especially when it is publicly empowered? The answer is complicated, of course. The largely untold story of religion is its demonstrated power to oppose injustices, defend human dignity, reduce violence, practice compassion, mediate conflicts, deliver social services to the marginalized, encourage repentance and forgiveness, and, yes, foster good governance and honesty in business. In some cases—the headline-grabbing cases—extremists betray the core principles of the religion and prioritise violence and punishment as a response to injustice.

But the same can be said of dogmatists who proclaim the creed of secularism, as if they were the sole bearers of truth and righteousness. And the secular fundamentalists control vast resources of their own....

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