Religion and the United Nations-Introduction

Article excerpt

This special issue of CrossCurrents is dedicated to exploring the relationship between religion and the United Nations, with an emphasis on providing positive examples of potential and actual interaction, and making an argument in favor of developing partnerships between the world's governing body and the world's religious communities. As importantly, if not more so, we also hope that the articles collected here will provide a platform for further discussion and action among UN staff, scholars of religion, and religious communities themselves. To our knowledge, there has been little documented in terms of this kind of three-way discussion, much to the disadvantage of all parties involved.

This short introduction will explain our basic orientation to the topic of religion at the UN, the thinking behind our designating these primary categories and the article selection within, as well as provide a compass for following the arrangement of the articles that follow. The conclusion will provide a more detailed historical framework and analysis.

When the co-editors first began thinking about this topic, there was relatively little in the way of official initiatives within the UN system to engage religion, and yet paradoxically religion was everywhere in its midst. Indeed, as the UN was conceived, scholars of religion and religious workers advocated for a spiritual and religious voice at the world governing body; there was little in the way of direct and official response. In this way, the official current involvement of many internal UN agencies demonstrates decisively the growing pragmatic awareness of and interest in the role religion can play in fulfilling its mission, however yet still under construction.

Although not organized discretely, the articles that follow fall into three broad categories: first is a set of articles authored by scholars of religion who argue for, and in some cases about, the role of religion at the UN. They do so mostly around issues of peace building, and we have chosen this focus to complement other pieces which come from UN program staff that are located in particular agencies that deal more discretely with social and humanitarian problems. Collectively, these articles provide both more abstract perspectives about the moral role of religion in peace building and the place of religion in civil society as it interfaces with the UN. They also provide a variety of particular perspectives that distinct religious traditions have to offer when it comes to peace building through the UN's auspices.

The second set of articles are examples of Religious Non-Governmental Organizations, more commonly referred to as faith-based organizations (FBOs), at work with the UN. The world governing body is, of course, a collection of nation states, steered by a collective process among them; it is also a set of connected agencies that address particular urgent human needs. As a kind of federated system, it inherently recognizes the need for diversity, debate, and input from sources other than nation states, including civil society. It does so primarily through NGOs, tens of thousands of which, with very different mission statements, register with the UN, with a goal of influence. What influence is understood, of course varies. While UN agencies seek to reach religious communities to fulfill their work, FBOs serve as a primary way (but not the only way) that religion officially works with, and impacts, the work of the UN. There are thousands of FBOs both locally situated and international, with diverse missions, all of which seek some way to interact with the UN to fulfill their own religious or spiritual mission.

The articles in the third section explain some of the ways in which UN agencies have begun to engage religion. These are personal reflections by program staff members at the UN who are, through their work as described here, helping to engineer a posture toward religious nongovernmental entities in ways which help them to better fulfill their particular agency's objectives. …