By WILLIAM McKENZIE
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
President Bush likes religion and politics. He'd better. He has his hands full of it. So does our ambassador in Iraq, John Negroponte. Now that Iraq has had its elections, that nation's future -- and ours in the Mideast -- depends upon managing the interplay.
The State Department hasn't always had a good feel for the influence religion plays in home countries. Our diplomats are skilled at understanding political parties, exchange rates and business relationships. They have been less successful at grasping the trends coming out of mosques, churches and synagogues.
Freedom House senior fellow Paul Marshall offers up one example. He says our diplomats were slow in grasping the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's importance in Iraq.
The nation's most prominent Shiite cleric, the elderly spiritual leader commands a large following. And he has taken a fairly moderate line about the changes going on in his country. He urged Iraqis to vote and favors a secular government. Our people in Iraq get him now, Marshall says, but U.S. envoy Paul Bremer and his crew didn't when we first started administering the nation.
We sure have plenty of chances to redeem ourselves. Sunday's elections show that the tension between Shiite and Sunni Muslims isn't going away. As expected, Shiites did well at the polls, and Sunnis largely stayed away. Bridging the gap between these two Islamic forces is central to getting Iraq right.
For one thing, we need to make sure enough American legal advisers in Iraq understand the Shiite-Sunni tension. Marshall noted during an interview last week that many American constitutional advisers in Iraq helped Eastern and Central European nations draft their post-communism constitutions. The documents were fine, but Poland and the Czech Republic didn't have to worry about Islamic issues as Iraq does.
And it isn't just Shiite-Sunni tension that diplomats need to grasp. Shiites have their own divides. Moderates like the Ayatollah al-Sistani seem to want civil institutions for all. Hard-liners like Muqtada al-Sadr prefer an Islamic-run country. Understanding the thinking of these two sides will help us stave off surprises -- and perhaps civil war.
And Islam isn't the only question mark for American diplomats. Look at Latin America, where Pentecostalism is growing so fast that "spirit-filled" churches eventually could outpace the Catholic Church as a cultural force.
Pentecostalism is fairly populist, so it's possible that grassroots politicians could rise up with the support of Pentecostals alienated from the larger culture. The phenomenon is something to watch. Our diplomats could do us a service back home by getting out and talking to Pentecostal preachers, going to their churches and understanding their message.
Our diplomats also must understand how religions mutate. In Africa, you can have spiritualism mixed with Christianity. Let's hope someone at State or Commerce understands this, since the Bush administration has talked a good deal about more trade with Africa and fighting AIDS there. Communicating our policies could entail communicating across religious lines.
The State Department does have an Office of International Religious Freedom. And last week, Gene Bigger from that office explained how it puts out reports on religious freedom. The office even has a special ambassador. "We didn't do this in the 1970s," he said.
True enough. But the State Department needs to make sure this office doesn't ghettoize the study of religion's influence on politics. You could just hear someone within the bowels of the bureaucracy say, "Oh, yeah, we got some office that studies that stuff."
The mix of religion and politics is too volatile to be shunted off to one office. The State Department should integrate an understanding of religion into the training of each foreign service officer.
We make a distinction between church and state in this country. And that's fine. But we harm ourselves if we think religious and political thinking don't come together. We need to get a handle on the connection if we're going to get Iraq and many other places right.
X William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.