UC Santa Cruz scholar warns against mixing religion and foreign policy

Gary Lease-interim dean of humanities at UC Santa Cruz and an internationally recognized expert on the history of religion-has been studying the relationship between politics and religion for more than two decades. He recently returned from Tokyo where he presented his research at a conference of the International Association for the History of Religions.

"I've been looking at an unstudied element-the secretaries of state at the Vatican during the 19th and 20th centuries," Lease observed. "And the results have been very revealing. My conclusion: you're asking for trouble when you confuse religion and foreign policy."

"When you start making foreign policy based on religion, and particularly when it's fueled by religion based on absolute beliefs, you get some horrific results," said Lease. "The new pope is going to suffer from this problem," he added.

Lease cited examples such as the policy of the Vatican during World War II, noting the controversy over whether Pius XII and the Roman church did enough to help the Jews in Europe during Hitler's reign. "Religion tells you that you are primarily responsible for those who believe what you do," Lease explained. "For those who don't, it's often tough luck for them-they're left on the margins." He said that his many years of work on the relationship between religion and Germany's National Socialism also have led him to the same conclusions.

Lease also cited Vatican foreign policy in Palestine. "There you have Christian Arabs on one side and Jewish Israelis on the other," he said. "What you find is a diplomatic leaning on the side of your co-believers. And that is, in essence, a moral judgment."

"The same thing has happened with Iraq, which has been portrayed as a 'battle against evil and Saddam Hussein,'" Lease added. "History has shown, when you get into that kind of language and it becomes ingrained into your foreign policy decisions, the results are disastrous."

Lease studied in Germany at the University of Munich, eventually earning a doctorate degree in theology in 1968. His expertise covers a remarkable range of fields including early Christian archaeology, Vatican foreign policy and canon law, German intellectual history, German Judaism, and religious/cultural evolution. In 2001, Lease returned to the University of Munich as a guest professor, occupying the renowned Romano Guardini Chair for Theory of Culture and Religion.

"I met Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) when I was a student at Munich," Lease noted. "Based on his remarks of the last 20 years and the last two months, it appears he will continue to mix religion with foreign policy, which will in turn lead to troubling results."

Lease joined the faculty at UCSC in 1973 and was chair of the History of Consciousness Department from 1998 to 2004. He has also chaired the UCSC Religious Studies Department, served as director of the Education Abroad Program in Goettingen, West Germany, and was dean of the UCSC Humanities Division from 1990 to 1995.

Lease served as the executive secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion from 1995 to 2005 and was recently reelected treasurer of the International Association for the History of Religions-the presenter of the Tokyo conference that was attended by more than 1,700 scholars from around the world.