Foreign Policy and the Establishment of Religion

Mike Pompeo (lev radin via Shutterstock)

by Paul R. Pillar

The opening line of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is no accident that this prohibition has pride of place in the Bill of Rights. It is fundamental to the founding of the republic. Several of the American colonies were founded by people seeking to escape the bonds of established religion. The establishment clause reflects the Enlightenment concept that the common good is best advanced through the free exchange of ideas, unconstrained by dogma from revealed religion or any other source outside the civic culture of the republic itself. Most important, it is intrinsic to the concept that the United States shall not be identified in ethnic or sectarian terms but instead will represent interests common to all its citizens, however diverse their origins and faiths.

Note that the constitutional language refers not just to the freedom to practice one’s religion but first of all to keeping government out of religion, which is what “establishment” in this context means. The Founding Fathers understood that it is impossible to separate entirely individual religious freedom from the consequences of government endorsement or sponsorship of specific religions. But that was not the only reason for the establishment clause. Indeed, there have been examples, such as the Ottoman Empire, of a state with an established religion that nonetheless granted members of other faiths considerable freedom to worship. Prohibiting establishment of a religion is important above all to uphold the principle that the government of the United States should act on behalf of U.S. national interests and not act according to religious beliefs shared by only some of its citizens.

Litigation involving the establishment clause has focused primarily on domestic matters. These have included egregious violations of the clause, such as a public official erecting on public grounds a monument with the Ten Commandments. They also have included matters on which a plausible case can be made on each side, involving taxpayer funds used to assist a religious organization in achieving a non-religious purpose such as making a playground safer. But the principle involved applies as well to foreign policy. In foreign relations as in domestic matters, the U.S. government should be acting to advance U.S. national interests and should not be steered by any one set of religious beliefs.

Religion in Policy Toward the Middle East

Current U.S. foreign policy violates that principle. The violation is most apparent with an issue that has heavily engaged U.S. foreign policy and that has heavy religious undertones: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. bias toward the Israeli side in that conflict—a bias that the Trump administration has carried to extremes—has multiple roots. These include several emotional, political, and historical factors, and, yes, include money. But they also include the direct application of personal religious beliefs by U.S. policymakers.

That application especially involves Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian who is unabashed about drawing no lines between his personal religious beliefs and his public duties. (And Pompeo may not even be the senior member of the administration who most conspicuously wears his religion on his sleeve—that distinction going to Vice President Mike Pence.) Pompeo has said that the Bible “informs everything I do.” The interviewer who recorded that quotation noticed that a well-used copy of the book lay open on a table in Pompeo’s office. Pompeo has spoken publicly about the “rapture” and appears to subscribe to the belief, held by many Evangelical Christians, that a triumph of Israel is a necessary precursor to fulfillment of biblical prophecies.

In a televised interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pompeo said of a recent visit to Israel, “It was special for me as a Christian…to show the commitment the United States has to this democracy, this Jewish nation of Israel.” When the interviewer asked whether President Trump is filling the role of the biblical Queen Esther, “to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace,” Pompeo replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible…I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”

This month David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer whom Trump appointed as ambassador to Israel, made a public comment from his Orthodox Jewish perspective that resembled Pompeo’s remarks from his Evangelical Christian perspective. “Israel has one secret weapon that not too many countries have,” Friedman said. “Israel is on the side of God.”

U.S. national interests would be served by a policy that promotes a fair and equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby reducing the violence, infringements of human rights, export of extremism, and antagonism toward the United States that perpetuation of the conflict has entailed. The much different policy currently in effect, motivated in part by religious objectives and prophecies, directly undermines those interests.

The fundamentalist duo of Pompeo and Friedman most recently offered an op ed attempting to rationalize the administration’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. The acceptance of this acquisition of territory through military force flouts the overwhelming sense of the international community, substitutes a destructive might-makes-right doctrine for the applicable principles of international law, and vitiates any U.S. opposition to another state’s seizing of territory through military force. Regardless of the terms in which the rationalization is phrased, religious motivations are surely not far behind. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer debunked Pompeo and Friedman’s assertions about the negotiating history concerning the Golan and explained the administration’s recognition decision this way: “Ideological support for Israeli territorial expansion and the courting of American Jewish and Christian Evangelical voters is now driving American foreign policy—bad foreign policy that has created problems, not solved them.”

Other Bias

Religious bias is exhibited in other aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign relations, perhaps most notably with the Muslim travel ban. That issue, however, has not been accompanied by undiluted, Bible-open-in-the-office professions of religious belief such as what Pompeo has said about Israel, because the belief would have to be expressed in negative terms about someone else’s religion and that usually would be considered too impolitic even for the current cast of policymakers.

How the positive and negative sides of religious commitment can be two sides of the same coin was illustrated by the case several years ago (and thus having nothing to do with the Trump administration) of Army Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a fervent fundamentalist Christian whose religiously-infused off-script comments got him in some trouble. Boykin declared that Islamic terrorists hate the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundations and our roots are Judeo-Christian.” He repeatedly characterized the George W. Bush administration’s “War on Terror” as a religious battle between good Christians and evil non-Christians. He stated in a speech about how he captured a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”

Boykin was mildly disciplined for his outspokenness, but the negative side is never far from the positive side when religious beliefs are applied to public policy by policymakers who are better able than the general to hold their tongues when they need to. The assertion that one side in a conflict is holy imputes evil to the other side. As veteran Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi remarked about Friedman’s “Israel is on the side of God” comment, “Where does that place the rest of the world?” In the past, Pompeo has spoken of counterterrorism in religious-war terms that made him sound much like Boykin. He told a Kansas church group in 2014 that Muslim terrorists “abhor Christians and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior is truly the only solution for our world.”

The establishment clause has been an issue in litigation on the Muslim travel ban, although procedural issues also have been a basis for suits against it and a conservative Supreme Court majority, voting along the usual partisan lines in a 5-4 decision, refused to strike down the ban. Litigation based on the establishment clause that aims against foreign policies such as the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unlikely to go anywhere for several reasons: judicial deference to the executive in foreign policy, multiple motives underlying the policies in question, and likely difficulties in establishing standing to sue. But such policies, insofar as they involve religious motivations, are as much a violation of the important principle underlying the establishment clause as is a Ten Commandments monument on a courthouse lawn. And the harm to U.S. national interests is significantly greater.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Well if Iran, Israel, Wahhabi Saudis, Pakistan, India are doing it why not us? Unless we are better than those clowns or we are a bigger clown ourselves!

  2. This country was NOT founded on either the bible or the christian religion, it was suppose to be a SECULAR STATE! We were suppose to be free to worship or NOT worship as WE CHOSE!
    Religion is not just a superstition it’s also used as a means of CONTROL by virtually all religions & by theocratic states & that’s what Trump, Pompeo & Pence want to IMPOSE christianity upon us, THEOCRATIC CONTROL!

    If these MORONS had actually READ ALL of their bible, they would have read that Jesus was to return while the people he was speaking to WERE STILL ALIVE, THEY WOULD LIVE TO SEE IT ALL!
    In Revelation, his followers believed Jesus would come to take them up into the sky while some of them were still alive.
    THERE ALL DEAD, Jesus will never return!
    There will be NO RAPTURE!

    Who or what can stop these mad men? What will it take to free ourselves from such a criminal theocracy?

    The “vote” is WORTHLESS! It’s RIGGED, the “ballots” are FAKE, the “votes” are controlled by corporate owned “voting” & vote “counting” machines, would be voters are disenfranchised, their jerrymandered out of their votes, there aren’t enough voting places where the poor & people of color live, & the candidates put up by those LYING CORPORATE OWNED & CONTROLLED POLITICAL PARTIES ARE ALLWAYS OLIGARCH WARMONGERS who represent only the RICH & LARGE GREEDY CORPORATIONS!

    No “third” party has a chance to be “elected” in such a rigged, fraudulent system, that’s why I am giving up on these FAKE “VOTES”, to HELL with the 2020 SELECTION!

    I fear we will need another dam BLOODY REVOLUTION to rid ourselves of these LYING PARACITES!

  3. In lack of ‘Communism’ as a source of fear to revolve the gears of the military industrial complex, a new source was needed. Although the ‘Religion, owned this role historically and had ceded it to Communism later. However, now we are back to the world order of ‘middle ages’ to keep MIC shareholders happy!

  4. “Most of the major states of history owe their existence to military conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.”

    Albert Einstein

  5. Now with the commies gone, our rulers are back to using religion & SOCIALISM to scare the sheeple!
    “It would break the budget they cry” ignoring the FACT that we spend TRILLIONS of our tax dollars on illegal, immoral WARS!
    It would raise TAXES “they” lament, ignoring the FACT that we would end up paying FAR LESS for universal, single payer health care.

    If that doesn’t scare the “sheeple” enough, they can always fall back on those HOMOS’, GODLESS ATHEISTS, LESBIANS, “LIBTARDS”, DRUG ADDICTS, “LAZY” UNEMPLOYED HOMELESS PEOPLE, IMMIGRANTS & BLACK, RED OR BROWN “SAVAGES”!

    I fear we will collapse long before we could even begin to clean up this mess. As long as “they” can find enough MALE ANIMALS to do their dirty work, “they” will continue to RULE!

    In our deep past, the rulers had no more power than the masses, everyone could make stone tipped spears, clubs or bows & arrows & the despot could be run off or killed.
    In other tribes, when a male became a local terror, the warriors would band together to hunt down & KILL the bad guy, problem solved!
    After our collapse, we could return to that kind of justice.

Comments are closed.