Missing from the vocabulary of tonight’s presidential debate on foreign relations and the economy were such small terms as God, religion, and faith – there wasn’t even a God Bless America.
I co-direct the Program on Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. Religion is playing a major role in many of the conflicts throughout the world. The closest either candidate came to identifying this truth was when Barack Obama correctly intimated that the most powerful person in Iran is not Ahmadinejad, but rather the religious leaders of that county. It is equally important to acknowledge that religion and religious institutions provide much of the inspiration and networks for peace making and post conflict reconcilation such as the Truth and Reconcilliation efforts in South Africa headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Of course there is only so much time in a debate. However, it is imperative that the next president show at least a working understanding of how religion influences global politics and an ability and willingness to engage the leaders and practitioners of the world’s faith traditions in finding solutions for the challenges that face us. It wouldn’t have hurt either of the candidates to have acknowledged the powerful role of religion perhaps score points by a quick mention of the important relief work done by the Christian based group World Vision or the American Jewish World Service.
There was a particular religious phrase that I was surprised not to hear during tonight’s debate – Radical Islam. While Senator Obama does not usually use this term, the Republican Party and John McCain have heartily adopted it as a substitute word for Al Qaeda. I was sure that McCain would bring it out tonight as a base pleaser for his party – he did not. The absence of the term Radical Islam was surprising and welcome. It is right to oppose religious fundamentalism and its political complement in all its forms. Yet I think the term radical Islam tends to focus too much attention on the religion of Islam and, unfortunately colors peaceful and moderate practitioners of that faith with a brush intended for people with a violent political ideology hiding behind religion.
The religious term that was used, and that I question, was Holocaust when describing the nuclear threat to Israel. I do not doubt McCain’s commitment to Israel, and I believe that Iran poses a threat that is extremely dangerous. However, the use of this term is so emotional and evocative that it seemed calculated and political. We can talk about the real threats to Israel, including Iran, without utilizing the memory that this very specific term evokes. There are times when it is best to leave religious terms out of political debates.