March 7, 2001
Religion on the Global Stage
-- Lawrence E. Sullivan
Was "Davos Man Meets Homo Religiosus" simply a remake of "Godzilla Meets Bambi?"
Several days ago, a panel of religious leaders faced the World EconomicForum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, for the first time, speaking about globalizationand peace to the final session of this year's assembly of business giants,scientific geniuses, media moguls, political stars, and cultural VIPs. Why, exactly, has religion been brought to this global stage?
If religion was placed on the program simply to dress up the notionof global diversity in exotic garb, it will have been business as usual. Like good, loyal character actors, colorful religious leaders are oftencalled upon to offer polite exhortations only to be excused to the wingswhen the serious action takes place. In "Fiddler on the Roof," therabbi was asked to formulate "a blessing for the Czar;" it's not clearthat a similar sort of manufactured benediction would add any degree ofhumanity to contemporary deliberations on globalization. If, however,distinctively religious voices have been truly allowed to become part ofthe mix on such hard policy issues as peace, poverty, trade, education,debt, the digital divide, and democracy, Davos will have set a new standardfor multilateral encounters.
Religion has certainly earned a place on this particular stage in recentyears. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the dissolutionof the Soviet Union, and the Falun Gong movement in China, to the Islamicinspirations for radical reform in Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, religionhas been at the center of modern global affairs.
Inevitably, though, when religion is brought into public discourse,its inclusion cuts two ways. The "forgiveness" prayer breakfastshosted by Bill Clinton during his impeachment crisis, for example, raisedcries of state manipulation of religion from his opponents, but the meetingsalso opened the space for a (literally) graceful solution among his supporters. Cutting either way, religion tends to bring the principles involved inpublic discourse into higher relief.
This is why religious participation in global-policy settings is onthe rise, albeit in a tacked-on, unfocused way. At the MillennialPeace Summit last summer, religious leaders filled the United Nations GeneralAssembly, which was another first. Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke,and UN Foundation donor Ted Turner charmed swamis, roshis, and nuns intolaughing over his narrow religious upbringing and applauding his call forecumenical cooperation. But that UN moment has yet to be followedup with constructive working agendas that involve religious leadership.
The lack of focus should surprise no one. Multilateral organizationshave never really sought dialogue with religion. The UN, the WorldBank, and the IMF have all avoided dealing directly with religion, butreligious institutions dogged the steps of these organizations in Cairo,Beijing, Rio, Kyoto, and Seattle on issues of women, poverty, religiousfreedom, violence against children, immigration, corruption, refugees,and the environment.
Religious leaders annoyed James Wolfenson, president of the World Bank,and Michel Camdessus, former IMF head, by stirring up noisy, global resistanceto policies on debt forgiveness and economic structural adjustment. The multilaterals have created "dialogues" not because they finally understandthe role of religion in society but because religious barbarians have breachedthe policymaking gates.
But Klaus Schwab, the Swiss business professor who organizes the WEF,has signaled a serious, civilized role for religious players in Davos. He rejects the perception that religions mostly cause conflict or resistmodernization. He opposes the idea that religion is essentially irrational,intolerant, irrelevant to economic and political questions, and incapableof understanding global dynamics. The WEF briefed all participants on religion'srelevance: in stabilizing and legitimizing political and economicsystems; in reviving activism in the international system; in mobilizingbacklash against globalization's deleterious effects; in building and consolidatingpeace; in providing critical and spiritual reflections from which emergesocial, economic, and ecological values.
The UN experience proved that religious leaders can bring distinctivevalues to such summits but must prepare better on the issues. Tobe credible spokespeople, they must overcome Babel and propose shared solutionsto such global religious problems as minority rights, conflicting interpretationsof freedom of belief, values-based investment, the use of force to protectprinciples, and reconciliation after violence.
Few religious leaders study the issues or express themselves in waysthat engage policymakers in business, finance, science, and government. The religious participants present at Davos should commit staff and resourcesto tackling the same concrete issues discussed by these other world leaderswho, in turn, should pledge to continue to listen to religious voices whenactions are decided upon. Perhaps then the gods might smile upon them all.
Lawrence E. Sullivan is the director of Harvard Divinity School's Centerfor the Study of World Religions, which coordinates research on religionand globalization.