Analysis & Opinions - The Huffington Post

Religion Matters in International Relations

March 1, 2010

Like any teacher, I get asked a lot of questions by my students. One in particular, which I received while leading a master's level course on religion with Father Bryan Hehir at Harvard's Kennedy School, struck me as particularly interesting: "Why," a student asked, "does Professor Hehir wear the same thing everyday?" Father (aka Professor) Hehir is an ordained Roman Catholic priest. The "same thing" in question was the traditional clerical black suit and white collar that Catholic priests have worn for decades. Yet this otherwise worldly student did not know this.

What was so remarkable about this comment was how unremarkable it has become in academic settings. Both ignorance of religion and theology in general, and their relevance to global politics, remain ignored or questionable subjects. Even after September 11, colleagues have repeatedly asked me whether religion "really" matters. I always say the same thing: "Go read 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta's letter." Religion matters a great deal, and its positive and negative influence both within and between states is certain to continue well into the coming decades.

The importance of Atta's letter is not only its emphasis on the role of his faith in shaping his and his expected audience's understanding of his actions, but in the significance of his actions as a watershed. For most political and social elites in the United States, September 11 is remembered as a vivid and disturbing sign that religion — or in this case an extreme interpretation of some precepts of traditional faith — was becoming a national security issue.

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For Academic Citation: Toft, Monica Duffy.“Religion Matters in International Relations.” The Huffington Post, March 1, 2010.