One often hears that America’s foreign policy elites don’t understand religion. Mostly secular themselves, they dismiss religion as a factor in world events; at most, they believe, religion operates as a pretext for other, deeper motivations, like politics and economics. This attitude can blind policymakers to reality. Even after 9/11, some foreign policy experts continue to minimize the religious roots of Islamism.
Some of this attitude is on display in the most recent National Intelligence Council Report, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, released earlier this month. The report, prepared every four years for the incoming administration, is meant to highlight medium and long-term trends in world affairs. Global Trends 2030 has received a lot of attention, primarily for its prediction of a decline in American power and a shift to a multipolar world. The report is also noteworthy, though, for the way it downplays religion’s role in shaping events.
It’s not that Global Trends 2030 completely ignores religion. The report discusses political Islam — we’re now paying attention to that phenomenon, at least — though some of the analysis might strike readers as optimistic, for example, the assertion that the protesters of the Arab Spring “acted in the name of democratic values, not in the name of religion.” (Apparently the report was prepared before recent events in Egypt). The problem is that the report minimizes religion. In 140 pages, religion appears only episodically, in a paragraph or two here and there. The most sustained treatment, which takes all of two pages, treats religion as part of the “Ideological Landscape,” which the report places under the heading of “Individual Empowerment.” Religion doesn’t make it into the bullet points.
The most glaring omissions have to do with Christianity. For example, Global Trends 2030 cites the growing economic and political power of Asia and the developing world. But the report ignores the fact, cited by many religion scholars, that Christianity is experiencing a boom in those places. Not too long ago, a high-ranking Chinese official joked that the most popular thing the Party could do would be to make Christianity the state religion. Or what about the unprecedented surge in Pentecostalism in Latin America? Or the explosion of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa? Surely a report addressing the rise of the Global South should address these developments in detail.
Or take another example. The report identifies an expansion of the middle class around the world as an important trend to watch. But the report misses the fact that the new middle-class strivers in places like China increasing identify with Christianity, which they see as the religion that has allowed the West, and especially America, to triumph. Apart from a quick reference to the fact that increased urbanization may help Christian (and Muslim) activists to “bolster religious cohesion,” the report doesn’t address this phenomenon.
It’s good for intelligence analysts to be hard-headed about global trends. They need to give clear, unemotional advice to the President and people responsible for our foreign relations. But paying more attention to religion would not be a surrender to enthusiasm. It would be an acknowledgement of reality, and it would make for better statecraft.