Churches and religious relief organizations are playing a much more active role in U.S. foreign policy. And that has been obvious in recent months in the recovery efforts for the South Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquakes.
In March, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited Andrew Natsios, who recently left the U.S. Agency for International Development as chief administrator, to talk about his five-year term there. This is a must-read for anyone who works in this field, or donates money to religious relief organizations. Some of Natsios’ most fascinating observations are about the way “Beltway Politics” influences aid policy in remote corners or the world, and the conflict within Islam about its relations to the West.
He recounted a story about a meeting with religious leaders in an unnamed African country:
We had a discussion about how HIV/AIDS was ravaging their congregations and the mosque. And the man representing the Muslim community was the president of the Muslim Doctors Association of this country. The interesting thing was the tension in the room was not among the Muslims. Muslims were 20 percent of the population of the country. It was between the pentecostals and the Anglicans. That was the theological tension. I could see it going on at lunch. I was troubled by it. But by the end of it the ambassador said, this is the best conversation I ever heard. It was a wonderful conversation because they didn’t realize that they’re all active in this area. They are all worried about HIV/AIDS because when parents die, you know who they go to first. They don’t go to the NGO community in this African country. The government ministries are not that functional. They don’t go to the government. They go to the mosque and the church for the children. Who is going to take care of the children?
And they said, we’re completely overwhelmed by orphans. They don’t know what to do with them all. They don’t have any money; they are poor parishes and congregations.
Natsios talks about European and American NGOs that press a secular approach in societies that are fundamentally religious. In fact, he says, many are hostile to the Church:
The Europeans and the Americans go in, groups not necessarily associated with governments and they press this secular thing, but in fact they are deeply religious societies. Peter Berger has written something on this; the argument he makes is that the West is basically an island of secularism, particularly Europe, when the rest of the world comes from a religious tradition – regardless of what the tradition – whether it’s animism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism.
If you are really developmentally mature, you don’t go into another country and trash their culture because you’re not going to be very successful in the development process if you do that. Both the left and the right do this, and they have done it to AID. I have received letters attacking us simultaneously from the left and the right on the same policy.
Read the transcript for “Religion and International Development: A Conversation with Andrew Natsios” on the Pew Web site.