Susan Hayward, associate director of the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative at Harvard Divinity School, leads the conversation on religious literacy in international affairs.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the final session of the Fall 2022 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic if you would like to share it with your classmates or colleagues. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Susan Hayward with us to discuss religious literacy in international affairs. Reverend Hayward is the associate director for the Religious Literacy and Professions Initiative at Harvard Divinity School. From 2007 to 2021, she worked for the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), with focus on Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Columbia, and Iraq. And most recently serving as senior advisor for Religion and Inclusive Societies, and as a fellow in Religion and Public Life. During her tenure at USIP, Reverend Hayward also coordinated an initiative exploring the intersection of women, religion, conflict, and peacebuilding, partnership with the Berkley Center at Georgetown University and the World Faith Development Dialogue. And she coedited a book on the topic entitled Women, Religion and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen
. Reverend Hayward has also taught at Georgetown and George Washington Universities and serves as a regular guest lecturer and trainer at the Foreign Service Institute. And she’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So, Susan, thank you very much for being with us today. Can you begin by explaining why religious literacy is so important for understanding international affairs?
HAYWARD: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Irina. And thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to be a part of this webinar. And I really appreciate you and the invitation, and I appreciate all of you who have joined us today, taking time out of what I know is a busy time of year, as we hurdle towards final exams and cramming everything into these last weeks of the semester. So it’s great to be with all of you.
I am going to be—in answering that broad question that Irina offered, I’m going to be drawing on my work. As Irina said, I worked at the—I work now at Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life Program. And what we seek to do here is to do here is to advance the public understanding of religion in service of a just world at peace. And we do that, in part, by working with professionals in governments and foreign policy, and in the humanitarian sector, as well as working with our students who are seeking to go into vocations in those professional spheres. And then my fourteen years with the Religion and Inclusive Societies Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
So I’ll say a little bit more about both of those as we go along, and those experiences, but I’m also happy to answer any questions about either of those programs when we turn to the Q&A. And I should say that I’m going to be focusing as well—given that a lot of you all who are joining us today are educators yourselves or are students—I’m going to be focusing in particular on how we teach religious literacy within international affairs.
So I wanted to begin with the definition of religious literacy, because this is a term that is increasingly employed as part of a rallying cry that’s based on a particular diagnosis. And the diagnosis is that there has been insufficient deep consideration of the multiple and complex dimensions of religion and culture that impact international affairs at all levels across the world. And that the result of that lack of a complex understanding of religion in this arena has been the—the hamstringing of the ability of the international system to operate in ways that are effective in bringing justice, peace, democracy, human rights, and development.
So I’m going to circle back to that diagnosis in a bit. But first I want to jump to the prescription that’s offered, which is to enhance religious literacy using various resources, trainings, courses, and ways that are relevant for foreign policymakers and those working across the international system, as well as those students who are in the schools of international affairs, or other schools and planning to go into this space, into this profession.
So the definition that we use here at Harvard Divinity School—and this is one that has been adopted by the American Academy of Religion, which is the scholarly guild for religious studies—defines it in this way: Religious literacy is the—entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social, political, and cultural life through multiple lenses. So specifically, one who is religious literate will possess a basic understanding of different religious traditions, including sort of fundamental beliefs and practices and contemporary manifestation of different religious traditions, as well as how they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical, and cultural contexts. And the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social, and cultural expressions across time and space.
So this gets broken down in two different ways—three, according to me. But that definition focuses on two in particular. One is often referred to as the confessional approach or the substantive approach. So that’s looking at understanding different religious traditions and their manifestations in different places. That’s understanding something fundamental about the difference between Theravada Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism, for example. Or how Islam is practiced, and dominantly practiced in Nigeria, versus in North America, for example.
The second approach is the religious studies approach. Which is sometimes also called the functional approach. So that’s the ability to be able to analyze the ways in which religions in complex ways are really intersecting with social, and political, and economic life, even if not explicitly so. But in implicit, embedded ways shaping different kinds of economic systems, social systems, and political systems, and being able to analyze and see that, and so ask particular questions and consider different kinds of policy solutions—diagnoses and solutions that can take that into account.
And then finally, I add the religious engagement approach. That particularly comes out of my work when I was at USIP and working with foreign policymakers in the State Department and elsewhere. To some extent, overseas as well, those in the diplomatic sector. Which I understand is determining whether, when, and how to engage with specifically defined religious institutions, actors, and interests, including on issues related, for example, with religious freedom, in ways that are inclusive, just, strategic, and, importantly for the U.S. context, legal. So abiding by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Now, all three types of religious literacy defined here depend on three principles or ideas. So the first is that they understand religions as lived, as constituted by humans who are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting their religious traditions. This means that as a result they are internally diverse, sometimes very internally contradictory. They’ll have different religious interpretations with respect to particular human rights issues, particular social issues, issues related to gender, and so on and so forth. That they change over time. That that sort of complex interpretive process that is going on within religious traditions also leads to kind of larger normative changes within religious traditions over history in different temporal contexts. And that they’re culturally embedded.
So as the question I was asking earlier, how is Islam, as it’s understood and practiced in Nigeria, different from how it’s understood and practiced in North America, for example. There are ways in which the particular religious interpretations and practices of a tradition are always going to be entangled with specific cultural contexts in ways that are near impossible to disentangle at times. And that means that they just manifest differently in different places. And this—these ideas of religion as lived pushes against an understanding of religions as being static or being monolithic.
So that then leads us to ensure that there’s never—that it’s always going to be a problem to make sweeping claims about entire religious traditions because you’ll always find somebody or some community within those religious traditions that don’t believe or practice according to the claim that you just made about it. And that applies to situations of violent conflict and with respect to human rights, on global issues like climate and migration. This idea, the internal diversity in particular, is what is at play when you hear the phrase “Ambivalence of the Sacred” that was coined by Scott Appleby in his—in this very influential book by the same name.
I’ll throw in here a quote from Scott Appleby from that book, this idea that religions are always going to show up in ambivalent or contradictory ways across different places, but also sometimes in the very same contexts. So I think we can see that, for example, in the U.S. right now, and that there’s no one, let’s say, religious position with respect to reproductive rights, for example. There’s a great deal of internal plurality and ambivalence that exists across religious traditions and interpretations within the Christian tradition and beyond about that specific issue.
Moreover then, what religion is, what is considered religious, what is recognized as religious and what isn’t, and how it manifests in different contexts depends on just a complex array of intersecting factors. I’m going to come back to—that’s kind of meaty phrase just to throw out there, so I’m going to come back to that in a minute. So the second principle or idea of religious literacy that I want to highlight here is the idea of right-sizing religion. This is a phrase that Peter Mandaville used quite a bit when he was in the State Department’s Religion and Global Affairs Office under the Obama administration and has written about. So I’ll turn you to that article of his to understand more about it.
But the central idea is that we don’t want to over nor underemphasize religion’s role in any given context. So just by way of a quick example, in looking at the Rohingya crisis or the ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State in Myanmar, one could not say it was all about religion, that it was about Buddhist nationalists who are anti-Muslim wanting to destroy a particular religious community. Nor could you say it had nothing to do with religion, because there were these religious dimensions that were at play in driving the violence towards the Rohingya and the larger communities’ acceptance of that violence against the Rohingya community.
But if you were to overemphasize the religious roles, the religious dimensions of that crisis, then your policy solutions—you might look at religious freedom tools and resources to be able to address the situation. And that would address the situation in part, but obviously there were other economic and political factors that were at play in leading to the Rohingya crisis. And including certain economic interests with oil pipelines that were being constructed across lands that the Rohingya were living on in Rakhine state, or the political conflict that was taking place between the military and the National League of Democracy, and so on.
So addressing the crisis holistically and sustainably requires that we right-size the role that religion is playing in that particular crisis. And that goes across the board, in looking at conflicts and looking at the role of religion in climate, and addressing climate collapse, and so on and so forth. We need to always neither under nor overestimate the role that religion is playing in driving some of these issues and as a solution in addressing some of these issues.
OK. So with that definition and principles of religious literacy in mind, I want to go back to the diagnosis that I gave at the—that I mentioned at the top, for which religious literacy is offered as a solution. The diagnosis, if you remember, was that there’s been insufficient consideration given to the multiple and complex dimensions of religion and culture that impact international affairs. So I’m going to demonstrate what it means to apply the religious studies approach to religious literacy, or the functional approach to religious literacy, to help us understand why that might be.
And remember, the religious studies approach is seeking to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social, and cultural expressions and understandings across time and place. So this approach, in trying to answer that question and consider that diagnosis, it would invite us to look historically at the development of the modern international legal and political systems in a particular time and place in Western Europe, during the European Enlightenment. As many of you may well know, this came about in the aftermath of the so-called confessional or religious wars. Those were largely understood to have pitted Protestants against Catholics, though it’s more complicated in reality. But broadly, that’s the story.
And the modern state, on which the international system was built, sought to create a separation between religious and state authority. For the first time in European history, this separation between religious and state authority that became more rigid and enforced over time, in the belief that this was necessary in order to ensure peace and prosperity moving forward, to bring an end to these wars, and to ensure that the state would be better able to deal with the reality of increasing religious pluralism within Europe. So this was essentially the idea of secular political structures that was born in that time and place. And these secular political structures were considered to be areligious or neutral towards religion over time, again.
In the process of legitimating this sort of revolutionary new model of the secular modern state, and in the process of creating this demarcated distinction that had not previously existed—at least, not a neat distinction of the secular or the political authority and the religious—the religious authority—there was an assertion as part of that ideologically legitimate and support that. There was an assertion of the secular as rational, ordered, and associated with all of the good stuff of modernity.
Meanwhile, the religious was defined in counter-distinction as a threat to the secular. It was irrational, backwards, a threat to the emerging order. A not-subtle presumption in all of this is that the new modern state and the international system would serve as a bulwark against archaic, dangerous, religious, and other traditionally cultural, in particular, worldviews and practices in—it would be a bulwark against that, and a support for this neutral and considered universal international law and system—secular system.
Now, I realize I’m making some, like, huge, broad historical sweeps here, given the short amount of time I have. But within that story I just told, there is a lot more complexity that one can dig into. But part of what I seek to do in offering religious literacy in international relations theory and practice to students, and to practitioners in this realm, is to help those operating in the system think through how that historically and contextually derived conception of religion and the co-constitutive conception of secularism continues to operate within and shape how we interpret and respond to global events within the system.
And this occurs—I see this happening in two dominant ways. One is, first, in thinking about religion as a distinct sphere of life that can be disentangled entirely from the political, when in reality religion is deeply entangled with the political, and vice versa. And scholars like Talal Asad and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd have done really great work to show how even our understanding of the secular and secular norms and so on is shaped by Protestant Christian commitments and understandings. And saying within that, our understanding of what religion is—like, a focus on belief, for example, which has been codified in a lot of religious freedom law, as part of the international system—again, tends to emphasize Protestant Christian understandings of what religion is and how it functions.
So that’s the first reason for doing that. And then second, in understanding religion to be a threat to modernity, and sometimes seeing and responding to it as such rather than taking into account its complexity, its ambivalence, the ways in which it has been a powerful force for good, and bad, and everything in between, and in ways that sometimes let the secular off the hook for ways that it has driven forms of violence, colonialism, gender injustice, global inequalities, the climate crisis, and so on. So those are the consequences of when we don’t have that religious literacy, of those potential pitfalls.
And, on that second point, of the ways in which religion continues to be defined in ways that can overemphasize its negative aspect at time within the international system, I commend the work of William Cavanaugh in particular and his book, The Myth of Religious Violence
to dig into that a little bit more. So what we’re seeking to do, in bringing that kind of religious literacy to even thinking about the international system and its norms and how it operates, is to raise the consciousness of what Donna Haraway calls the situatedness of the international system, the embedded agendas and assumptions that inevitably operate within it.
And it invites students to be skeptical of any claims to the systems neutrality about religion, how it’s defined, and how it’s responded to. So I recognize that that approach is very deconstructionist work. It’s informed by, post-colonial critical theory, which reflects where religious studies has been for the last couple decades. But importantly, it doesn’t, nor shouldn’t ideally, lead students to what is sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis, when there’s sort of groundedness within hypercritical approaches, only looking at the complexity to a degree that it’s hard to understand how to move forward then to respond constructively to these concerns.
Rather, the purpose is to ensure that they’re more conscious of these underlying embedded norms or assumptions so that they can better operate within the system in just ways, not reproducing forms of Eurocentrism, Christo-centrism, or forms of cultural harm. So the hope is that it helps students to be able to better critique the ways in in which religion and secularism is being—are being discussed, analyzed, or engaged within international affairs, and then be able to enter into those kinds of analysis, policymaking, program development, and so on, in ways that can help disrupt problematic assumptions and ensure that the work of religious literacy or religious engagement is just.
So I’m just going to offer one example of how this kind of critical thinking and critical—the way of thinking complexly about religion in this space can be fruitful. And it speaks back to one of the things Irina noted about my biography, the work I had done looking at women and religion and peacebuilding. So while I was at USIP, in that program, we spent several years looking specifically and critically at forms of theory and practice, and this subfield that had emerged of religious peacebuilding. And we were looking at it through the lens of gender justice, asking how religion was being defined in the theory or engaged in the peacebuilding practice and policy in ways that unintentionally reinforced gender injustice.
And what we found is that there were assumptions operating about certain authorities—often those at the top of institutions, which tended to be older, well-educated men—representing entire traditions. Assumptions made about their social and political power as well. When in reality, we knew that those of different genders, and ages, and socioeconomic locations were doing their own work of peacebuilding within these religious landscapes, and had different experiences of violence, and so different prescriptions for how to build peace.
So we began to ask questions, like whose peace is being built in this field of religious peacebuilding that was emerging? And the work that USIP had been doing in this space of religious peacebuilding? Whose stories were being left out in the dominant analyses or narratives in the media about religious dimensions of certain conflicts, and what are the consequences of that? So these kinds of questions are grounded in the recognition of, again, the internal diversity, the change over time of religious traditions. And they help ensure that analysis and policy actions aren’t unintentionally reproducing forms of harm or structural violence.
I’m almost done. So please do bring your questions so that we can engage in a discussion with each other. But I wanted to end by offering a couple examples of resources that I think might be helpful to both enhancing your own religious literacy but also as potential pedagogical tools in this work. So first is Religious Peacebuilding Action Guides that were produced by the U.S. Institute of Peace, in partnership with Salam Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. There’s four guides. They’re all available for free online. Once I close down my PowerPoint, I’m going to throw the links for all of these things I’m mentioning into the chat box so you can all see it.
But one of the things—I’m just going to dive in a little bit to the analysis guide, because one of the things that I think is useful in helping, again, to help us think a little bit more complexly about religion, is that it takes you through this process of thinking about the different dimensions of religion as defined here—ideas, community, institutions, symbols and practices, and spirituality. So it’s already moving beyond just an idea of religious institutions, for example. And it takes you through doing a conflict assessment, and asking the questions related to religion with respect to the drivers of the conflict and the geographic location and peacebuilding initiatives, to help you craft a peacebuilding—a religious peacebuilding initiative.
I have used this framework as a means to help students think through the ambivalence of religion as it manifests in different places. So I have an example there of a question that I have sometimes used that has been fruitful in thinking about how these five different dimensions of religion have manifested in American history in ways that either have advanced forms of racialized violence and injustice or that have served as drivers of peace and justice. And there’s lots of examples across all of those dimensions of the ways in which religion has shown up in ambivalent ways in that respect.
There’s also—USIP’s team has produced a lot of amazing things. So I’ll put some links to some of their other resources in there too, which includes they’re doing religious landscape mappings of conflict-affected states. They have an online course on religious engagement in peacebuilding that’s free to take. Another resource is from here, at Harvard Divinity School in the Religion in Public Life Program. And we provide a series of case studies that is for educators. It’s primarily created educators in secondary schools and in community colleges, but I think could easily be adapted and used in other kinds of four-year universities or other kinds of professional settings, where you’re doing trainings or workshops, or even just holding discussions on religious literacy.
So there’s a series of kind of short, concise, but dense, case studies that are looking at different religions as they intersect with a host of issues, including peace, climate, human rights, gender issues. And it says something about that case study here—the example that I have here is the conflict in Myanmar, pre-coup, the conflicts that were occurring between religious communities, and particularly between Buddhist communities and Muslim communities. And then there’s a set of discussion questions there that really help to unearth some of those lessons about internal diversity and about the ways in which religious intersects with state policies and other kinds of power interests and agendas—political power interests and agendas.
And then also, at our program, Religion and Public Life, we have a number of courses that are available online, one that’s more on the substantive religious literacy side, looking at different religious traditions through their scriptures. Another course, it’s on religion, conflict and peace, all of which are free and I’m going to throw them into the chat box in a moment. And we also have ongoing workshops for educators on religious literacy, a whole network with that. So you’re welcome to join that network if you’d like. And then finally, we have a one-year master’s of religion and public life program for people in professions—quote/unquote, “secular” professions—who want to come and think about—they’re encountering religion in various ways in their work in public health, or in their work in journalism. And so they want to come here for a year and to think deeply about that, and bring something back into their profession.
And then the final thing, and then I’m going to be done, and this one is short, is the Transatlantic Policy for Religion and Diplomacy, which brings together point people from—who work on religion across different foreign ministries in North America and Europe. And their website, religionanddiplomacy.org, has a lot of really great resources that—reports on various thematic issues, but also looking at religion in situ in a number of different geographic locations. They have these strategic notes, that’s what I have the image of here, that talk about, at a particular time, what are some of the big stories related to religion and international affairs overseas. And they list a number of other religious literacy resources on their website as well. So I commend all of that to.
And with that, let me stop share, throw some links into the chat box, and hear responses and questions from folks.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you for that. That was terrific. And we are going to send out—as a follow-up, we’ll send out a link to this webinar, maybe a link to your presentation, as well as the resources that you drop into the chat. So if you don’t get it here, you will have another bite at the apple, so to speak.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
So I’m going to go first to the written question from Meredith Coon, who’s an undergraduate student at Lewis University: What would be a solution for India to have many different religions live in peace with each other, especially since most religions share a lot of the same core values of how people should live? And how can society prevent the weaponization of religion, while still allowing broad religious freedom?
HAYWARD: All right. Thank you for the question, Meredith. And one thing just to note, by way of housekeeping, I’m not sure I can actually share the links with all of the participants. So we’ll make sure that you get all of those links in that follow-up note, as Irina said.
So, Meredith, I think a couple things. One, I just want to note that one of the assumptions within your question itself is that folks of different religious persuasions are constantly at conflict with one another. And of course, there is a reality of there is increasing religious tensions around the world, communal tensions of many different sorts, ethnic, and religious, and racial, and so on, across the world. And the threat to democracy and increasing authoritarianism has sometimes exacerbated those kinds of tensions.
But there’s also a lot of examples presently and historically of religiously incredibly diverse communities living in ways that are harmonious, that are just, and so on. So I think it is important—there’s a lot of work that supports forms of interfaith dialogue and intra-faith dialogue. And I think that that work is—will always be important, to be able to recognize shared values and shared commitments, and in order to acknowledge and develop respect and appreciation for differences as well on different topics—again, both within religious traditions and across them.
But I think that dialogue alone, frankly, is not enough. Because so often these tensions and these conflicts are rooted in structural violence and discrimination and concerns, economic issues, and political issues, and so on. And so I think part of that work, it’s not just about building relationships kind of on a horizontal level, but also about ensuring that state policies and practice, economic policies and practices, and so on, are not operating in ways that disadvantage some groups over others, on a religious side, on a gender side, on a racial side, and so on. So it’s about ensuring as well inclusive societies and a sense as well of inclusive political systems and inclusive economic systems. And doing that work in kind of integrated ways is going to be critical for ensuring that we’re able to address some of these rising forms of violations of religious freedom.
Thanks again for the question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question from Clemente Abrokwaa. Clemente, do you want to ask your question? Associate teaching professor of African studies at Pennsylvania State University? I’m going to give you a moment, so we can hear some voices.
Q: OK. Thank you very much.
Yeah, my question is I’m wondering how peacebuilding, in terms of religious literacy, how would you look at—or, how does it look at those that are termed fundamentalists? How their actions and beliefs, especially their beliefs, those of us—there are those outside who perceive them as being destructive. So then to that person, is their beliefs are good. So they fight for, just like anyone will fight for, what, a freedom fighter or something, or a religious fighter in this case. So I’m just wondering how does religious literacy perceive that in terms of peacebuilding?
HAYWARD: Right. Thank you for the question, Professor Abrokwaa. I really appreciate it.
So a couple things. One, first of all, with respect to—just going back, again, to the ambivalence of the sacred—recognizing that that exists. That there are particular religious ideas, commitments, groups, practices that are used in order to fuel and legitimate forms of violence. And I use violence in a capacious understanding of it, that includes both direct forms of violence but also structural and cultural forms of violence, to use the framework of Johan Galtung. And so that needs to be addressed as part of the work to build peace, is recognizing religious and nonreligious practices and ideas that are driving those forms of violence.
But when it comes to religious literacy to understand that, a couple ways in which the principles apply. One is, first, not assuming that their—that that is the only or exclusive religious interpretation. And I think sometimes well-meaning folks end up reifying this idea that that is the exclusive religious interpretation or understanding when they’re—when they’re offering sometimes purely nonreligious responses to it. And what I mean by this, for example, let’s look at Iran right now. I read some analyses where it’s saying that, the Iranian authorities and the Ayatollahs who comprise the Supreme Council and so on, that they—that they define what Islamic law is.
And there’s not a qualification of that. And in the meantime, the protesters are sort of defined as, like, secular, or they’re not—the idea that they could be driven by certain—their own Islamic interpretations that are just as authoritative to them, and motivating them, and shaping them is critical. So being able to recognize the internal plurality and not unintentionally reify that particular interpretation of a religious tradition as exclusive or authoritative. Rather, it’s one interpretation of a religious tradition with particular consequences that are harmful for peace. And there are multiple other interpretations of that religious tradition that are operating within that context.
And then a second way that the religious literacy would apply would also look at the ways in which sometimes the diagnoses of extremist groups that are operating within a religious frame doesn’t right-size the role of religion in that. It sometimes overemphasizes the religious commitments, and drives, and so on. And so, again, we need to right-size. There are religious motivations. And we need to take those seriously. And we need to develop solutions for addressing that. And there are economic interests. And there are political interests. So there’s a whole host of factors that are motivating and inspiring and legitimating those groups. And being able to take into account that more holistic picture and ensure that your responses to it are going to be holistic.
And then one final thing I want to say that’s not with respect to religious literacy as much—or, maybe it is—but it’s more just about my experience of work at USIP, is that—and it kind of goes back to the question that Meredith asked before you about religious harmony between multireligious relations and harmony, is that I sometimes finds that engaging with groups that are defining themselves and motivating themselves with a primary grounding in religion, that they’re not going to participate generally in interfaith initiatives, and so on, right? And so that’s where some of that intra-faith work can be particularly important.
I saw this, for example, in Myanmar, when their—when previously the movement that was known as Ma Ba Tha, which was defined by some as a Buddhist nationalist anti-Muslim kind of Buddhist supremacist group. The folks who were most successful in being able to engage in a values-grounded conversation with members of the organization were other Buddhist monks, who were able to speak within the language of meaning and to draw attention to, like, different understandings of religious teachings or religious principles with respect to responding to minority groups, and so on. So I think that’s in particular, with addressing those groups, that’s where that intra-religious work or intra-communal work can be really critical, in addition to some of that cross-communal work.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So we’ve seen, obviously, the war in Ukraine and how Christian Orthodoxy is being—or, Greek Orthodoxy in Ukraine, and the division. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it’s playing out with Russian identity?
HAYWARD: Yeah, absolutely. There’s been some really good analysis and work out there of the religious dimensions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. So again, the sort of dominant story that you see, which reflects a reality, is that there are ways in which political and religious actors and interests are aligning on the Russian side in order to advance particular narratives and that legitimate the invasion of Ukraine that—that are about sort of fighting back against an understanding of the West as being counter to traditional and religious values.
Those are some of the religious understandings. And then that concern gets linked then to the establishment of an independent or autocephalous Orthodox Church within the Ukraine context. And you see—in particular, what’s pointed to often is the relationship between Patriarch Kirill in the Russian Orthodox Church, and Putin, and the ways in which they’ve sort of reinforced each other’s narrative and offered support to it.
And there’s really great analysis out there and stories that have been done about that. And that needs to be taken into account in responding to the situation and, I would say, that some of the religious literacy principles would then ask us to think about other ways in which religion is showing up within that, that go beyond the institution too. So a lot of the news stories that I’ve seen, for example, have focused exclusively on—sometimes—exclusively on the clerics within the Orthodox Church and their positions, either in support of or in opposition to the war.
But in reality, on the ground there’s a lot more complexity that’s taken place, and a lot more of the ways in which different individuals and communities on both the Russia and the Ukraine side are responding to the violence, to the displacements, and so on. It paints a more complex and, I think, fascinating story, frankly. And sort of illuminates ways forward in support of peacebuilding.
For example, there’s ways in which different kinds of ritual practices within Orthodoxy have served as a source of support and constancy to folks who are living in this situation of insecurity and displacement, in ways that have been helpful. There are, of course, other religious traditions that exist within both Ukraine and Russia that are operating and responding in different ways. Like, the Jewish community in Ukraine and the Catholic—the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. So looking at those complexities both within Orthodoxy, but there’s many different ways that Orthodox Christians are responding in both countries.
There’s not one story of Orthodox Christianity and the invasion of Ukraine. But also looking at some of the religious diversity within it. And that helps to ensure, like I said, one, that we’re developing solutions that are also recognizing the ways in which religion at a very ground level is serving as a source of support, humanitarian relief, social, psychological support to people on the ground, as well as the ways in which it’s sort of manifesting ambivalently and complexly in ways that are driving some of the violence as well.
And it also helps to push back against any sort of a narrative that this is about a Russian religion—on the Russian side—this is about a religious war against a secular, non-religious West or Ukraine, right? That that goes back to what I was talking about with the historical sort of contingencies that are baked into this system a little bit. And in defining it in that way, Russia’s religious and its motivations are religious, Ukraine’s not religious, that’s both not true—(laughs)—because there’s many religious folks within the Ukraine and within the West generally, but also feeds—it feeds the very narrative that Putin and Kirill are giving of a secular West that is anti-religion, that is in opposition to Russian traditional values.
FASKIANOS: It seems like there needs to be some training of journalists too to have religious literacy, in the same way that we’re talking about media literacy.
FASKIANOS: Probably should be introduced as well. (Laughs.)
HAYWARD: Yeah, Irina, it’s funny, we did—one of my students actually did a kind of mapping and analysis of stories about the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the religious dimensions of it. And she noted that there was—for example, it was—almost always it was male clerics who were being quoted. So there was very little that was coming from other gendered perspectives and experiences on the ground, lay folks and so on. And again, for that—for that very reason it’s sort of—because we know so many policymakers and international analysis are depending on these kinds of media stories, I worry that it creates a blinder to potential opportunities for different kinds of ways of addressing needs and partners for addressing needs on the ground.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.
I’m going to go next to Liam Wall, an undergraduate student at Loyola Marymount University: With so much diversity within religions itself, how can we avoid the analysis paralysis you mentioned and take in as many unique perspectives as possible, without letting that stand in the way of progress? How does one know that they have enough religious literacy and can now become an effective practitioner?
HAYWARD: Well, OK, the bad news is that you will never have enough religious literacy. (Laughs.) This is a process, not an end. There are scholars here at Harvard who have been studying one particular sect of a particular religious tradition for their entire adult lives, and they would still say that they are students of those traditions, because they’re so complex. Because so many of these traditions are composed of a billion people or just—just 500 million people. But that means that there’s going to be an incredible diversity to explore. And so that’s the bad news.
But the good news is, one, like, first take the burden off of your shoulders of having to be an expert on any one particular religious tradition, in order to be able to help to develop and enhance your own religious literacy, and those of others, and to operate in ways that reflect the principles of religious literacy, is the good news. As well as there are many different kinds of resources that you can turn to in order to understand, for example if you’re going to be working in a particular geographic location, scholarship, people you can speak to in order to begin to understand at least some of the specific manifestations and practices, and some of the disputes and diversity that exists within that particular country or geographic location across religious traditions.
But, secondly, I would say, it’s almost more important than—like, the substance is important. But what’s just as important, if not more important, is understanding what kinds of questions to be asking, and to be curious about these religious questions and their intersection with the political and social. So we sometimes say that religious literacy is about developing habits of mind in how we think about these religious questions, and what kinds of questions we ask about religion.
So it’s about developing that kind of a reflex to be able to kind of see what’s underneath some of the analysis that you’re seeing that might be relevant to religion or that might be advancing particularly problematic understandings of religion, or reinforcing binaries like the secular and the religious and so on. And that’s just as—just as important. So the extent to which you’re continuing to, like, hone those—that way of thinking, and those habits of mind, that will set you up well for then going into this space and being able to ask those particular questions with respect to whatever issues you’re focusing on, or whatever geographic location you’re looking at.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Mohamed Bilal, a postgraduate student at the Postgraduate Institute of Management in Sri Lanka.
FASKIANOS: Yes. How does sectarianism influence our literacy? In turn, if we are influenced by sectarianism, then would we be illiterate of the religion but literate of the sect? Thus, wouldn’t such a religious literacy perpetuate sectarianism?
HAYWARD: Thank you for the question, Mohamed. It’s—I miss Sri Lanka. I have not been there in too long, and I look forward to going back at some point.
So I would say sectarianism, in the sense of—so, there’s both religious sects, right? There’s the existence of different kinds of religious traditions, interpretive bodies, jurisprudential bodies in the case of Islam. And then broader, different schools or denominations. The term that’s used depends on the different religious tradition. And that reflects internal diversity. Sectarianism, with the -ism on the end of it, gets back to the same kinds of questions that I think Professor Clemente was asking with respect to fundamentalism. That’s about being sort of entrenched in an idea that your particular religious understanding and practice is the normative, authentic, and pure practice, and that all others are false in some ways. That is a devotional claim or—what I mean by a devotional claim, is that is a knowledge claim that is rooted within a particular religious commitment and understanding.
And so religious literacy in this case would—again, it’s the principles of internal diversity, recognizing that different sects and different bodies of thought and practice are going to exist within religious traditions, but then also ensuring that any claim to be normative or to be orthodox by any of these different interpretive bodies is always a claim that is rooted within that religious tradition that we sometimes say is authentic. It’s authentic to those communities and what they believe. But it’s not exclusive. It’s not the only claim that exists within that religious tradition more broadly.
And the concern is about—sects are fine. Different denominations, different interpretative bodies are fine and a good and sort of natural thing, given the breadth and the depth of these religious traditions. The problem is that -ism part of it, when it becomes a source of competition or even potentially violence between groups. And so that’s what needs to be interrogated and understood.
FASKIANOS: So another question from John Francis, who’s the senior associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah: If you were training new diplomats in other countries to be stationed in the United States, where a wide range of religious traditions thrive, how would you prepare them for dealing with such religious variation?
HAYWARD: The same way I would—and thank you, again, for the question. The same way that I would with any other diplomats going to any other—the same way I do with foreign service officers at the Foreign Service Institute, who are going to work overseas. I would—I would invite them to think about their own assumptions and their own worldviews and their own understandings of what religion is, based on their own contexts that they grew up in. So how that shapes how they understand what religion is, in the ways I was speaking to before. So for example, in Protestant Christianity, we tend to emphasize belief as the sort of core principle of religious traditions. But other religious traditions might emphasize different forms of practice or community as sort of the central or principal factor. So recognizing your own situatedness and the ways in which you understand and respond to different religious traditions.
I would invite those who are coming to work here to read up on the historical developments and reality of different religious communities and nonreligious communities in the U.S. and encourage them to look not just at some of the—what we call the world religions, or the major religions, but also at indigenous traditions and different practices within different immigrant communities. And I would have them look at the historical relationship between the state and different religious communities as well, including the Mormon tradition there in Utah, and how the experience of, for example, the Mormon community has shaped its own relationship with the state, with other religious communities on a whole host of issues as well.
And then I would encourage—just as I was saying earlier—no diplomat going to the U.S. is going to become an expert on the religious context in the U.S., because it’s incredibly complex, just like anywhere else in the world. But to be able to have sort of a basic understanding to be able to then continue to ask the kinds of questions that are going to help to understand how any political action is taken or response to any policy issues kind of inevitably bumps up against particular religious or cultural commitments and values.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to take the next question from Will Carpenter, director of private equity principal investments at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, and also taking a course at the Harvard Extension School.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to ask the second part of Will’s question. How will the current polarized domestic debate regarding U.S. history, which is often colored by the extremes—as a force for good only versus tainted by a foundation of injustice—impact America’s capacity to lead internationally?
HAYWARD: Hmm, a lot. (Laughter.) Thank you for the question. I mean, I think the fact of polarization in the U.S. and the increasing difficulty that we’re facing in being able to have really deep conversations and frank conversations about historical experiences and perceptions of different communities, not just religiously, not just racially even, but across different—urban-rural, across socioeconomic divides, across educational divides and, of course, across political divides, and so on. I think that—I think that absolutely hampers our ability to engage within the global stage effectively. One, just because of the image that it gives to the rest of the world. So how can we—how can we have an authentic moral voice when we ourselves are having such a hard time engaging with one other in ways that reflect those values and that are grounded within those values?
But also because I think get concern—with respect to religion questions in particular—I get concern about the increasing polarization and partisanization of religion in foreign policy and issues of religious freedom, and so on. Which means that we’re going to constantly have this sort of swinging back and forth then between Republican and Democratic administrations on how we understand and engage issues related to religion and foreign policy, different religious communities in particular, like Muslim communities worldwide, or on issues of religious freedom.
So I think it’s incredibly critical—always has been, but is particularly right now at this historical moment—for us to be in the U.S. doing this hard work of having these conversations, and hearing, and listening to one another, and centering and being open about our values and having these conversations on that level of values. To be able to politically here in the U.S., much less overseas, to be able to work in ways that are effective.
Irina, you’re muted.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. (Laughs.) With that, we are at the end of our time. Thank you so much for this. This has been a really important hour of discussion. Again, we will send out the link to the webinar, as well as all the resources that you mentioned, Susan. Sorry we didn’t have the chat open so that we could focus on what you were saying and all the questions and comments that came forward. So we appreciate it. And thank you so much, again, for your time, Susan Hayward.
And I just want to remind everybody that this is the last webinar of the semester, but we will be announcing the Winter/Spring Academic Webinar lineup in our Academic bulletin. And if you’re not already subscribed to that, you can email us at [email protected]
Just as a reminder, you can learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at CFR.org/careers. Follow @CFR_Academic on Twitter and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. Good luck with your exams. (Laughs.) Grading, taking them, et cetera. Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving. And we look forward to seeing you again next semester. So, again, thank you to Susan Hayward.
HAYWARD: Thank you, everybody. Take care.