I have always been wary of those who claim to be sure of the truth about the biggest questions. If God has a plan, it will be carried out. That is heaven's jurisdiction, not ours.
If, however, one believes that Creation has given us both life and free will, we are left with the question of what to do with those gifts. That is both a practical challenge and a moral one.
Religion concerns itself with the hopes and fears of all the years; the terms of American presidents are not so expansive. The policies of the U.S. government have to be based on what we might hope to accomplish in a finite period on Earth, not on post-millennial expectations.
At the same time, what we can accomplish on Earth is mixed up with the different understandings people have of God. As I travel around the world, I am often asked, “Why can't we just keep religion out of foreign policy?” My answer is that we can't and shouldn't.
Religion is a large part of what motivates people and shapes their views of justice and right behavior; it must be taken into account. Nor can we expect our leaders to make decisions in isolation from their religious beliefs. There is a limit to how much the human mind can compartmentalize. Why should world leaders who are religious act and speak as if they are not religious? We must live with our beliefs and also with our differences; it does no good to deny them.
This does not mean, however, that we should inflate the importance of those differences. It is human instinct to organize into groups. For most of us, this sorting process is largely passive. The groups to which we belong are part of our inheritance and culture--a consequence of where we were born and how we were raised.
My family's heritage was Jewish but I was raised a Roman Catholic. If, as a child, I had been sent to temple instead of to church, I would have grown to adulthood with a different group identity. I was born overseas. If not for the Cold War, my family would have had no cause to immigrate to the United States and I would never have become an American.
Nature allows us to choose neither our parents nor our place of birth, limiting from the outset the groups with which we will ever after identify. True, some of us will weigh competing philosophies and convert from one religion to another out of spiritual enlightenment or intellectual and emotional conviction. Some will find reason to shift allegiance from one country to another. But more often, we remain within the same general categories we dropped into at birth or, as in my case, the categories where events beyond our control have placed us. That is not much of an accomplishment.
Logically then, our differences should not matter so much. People of diverse nations and faiths ought to be able to live in harmony. However, the gap between what ought to be and what actually is has been a recurring source of drama throughout human existence.
Decades ago, famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned us that the brutality of nations and groups cannot be tamed no matter how hard we try. “Social conflict,” he wrote, is “an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end.” Good and wise people might seek to prevent catastrophe, he conceded, but they would likely be no match for the fears and ambitions that drive groups into confrontation. It is sobering that Niebuhr arrived at this grim judgment before World War II. He was not reacting to the war; he was predicting it.
If Niebuhr is right, the pursuit of peace will always be uphill. And yet, I cannot accept the view our flawed characters mean there is nothing we can do to improve the human condition. Decision makers can usefully search for ways to minimize the inevitable social conflicts referred to by Niebuhr--not so much to aspire to find Utopia, but to save us from even greater destruction.
Our inherent shortcomings notwithstanding, we can still hope to create a better future. And we know that the right kind of leadership can do much to prevent wars, rebuild devastated societies, expand freedom, and assist the poor.