Last week, I had the joy and blessing to be part of a conference hosted at the World Bank in Washington DC on Religion and Sustainable Development. The conference was jointly sponsored by the World Bank and 13 other organizations as varied as governments of the UK, US, Germany and Norway, World Vision, Tearfund and McKinsey & Co. Focused on inquiry into the challenges of partnerships between government based organizations (both multilateral and bilateral) and faith based organizations, the conference's goals were to develop solutions to these challenges as well as to forge partnerships that can work toward sustainable development.
Additionally, an underlying, fundamental element which wove through each discussion, each panel and each session was the World Bank's primary goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. In April, Pujya Swamiji (Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji) had been invited to take part in a flagship panel, hosted by Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, at the opening of their annual spring meetings, along with one leader of each of the major world religions.
This week's conference was open only to approximately 100 leaders, specifically invited from across the world. Its mission was to probe the challenges of partnerships between bilateral/ multilateral organizations with faith based organizations and how to overcome these challenges in the service of sustainable development and eradication of severe poverty.
World Bank President Kim's sincerity and commitment were evident from his opening remarks. He shared (I am paraphrasing): "Eradication of extreme poverty is our ultimate and fundamental goal. Everything the Bank does now, every decision we make, is made with the greatest benefit of the poor in mind. If we have to choose between two or more options in any circumstance, the deciding factor is always which will benefit the poorest of the poor."
I have been in many environments, many functions and many conferences where religious leaders are there merely as tokens. There is a token Christian or two, a token Muslim, a token Hindu, sometimes a token Jew and/or token Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Relegated to the role of providing "blessings," the leaders seem to be called for little more than photo-ops and political correctness.
This conference was the opposite. Faith leaders and heads of faith-based organizations were the ones to whom the other leaders turned and asked, "How can we work together to help eradicate extreme poverty? How can we join hands, utilizing each of our strengths, to ensure that the Earth we pass onto our children is one that sustains life and health rather than one fraught with toxicity, drought and natural disaster?"
"Faith-based organizations have the power to shift values and change behavior."
The speeches were deep inquiries into prejudices, biases and other challenges of bridging the gap between the public sector and faith-based organizations. Leaders of prominent financial, political and humanitarian institutions candidly examined the personal and organizational impediments to collaboration with religious groups.
By the end of the conference, friendships had been formed and bridges had been built. Creative approaches to many problems had been shared. Specific goals had been established. There is still a great deal of work to be done, both within and between all participants and all sectors. However, strong foundations have been laid, and powerful seeds have been planted in fertile soil.
Having grown up in America, I was inculcated with a passionate belief in the importance of separation between Church and State. We learned in elementary school to be grateful that we lived in a country where religion, faith and spiritual belief had no role in the functioning of our society. The only prayers allowed in school were to the flag of our nation.
The concept of "separation between Church and State" goes back to Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It was put into effect in order to provide a safe ground for religious freedom. Its purpose is to ensure that "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
This separation was reciprocal. Jefferson wrote: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building another wall of separation between Church & State."
In the 240 years since the founding of the Republic, the concept has been co-opted by much of society to ensure that the paths of politics and religion never intersect or overlap. "Separation of Church and State" has become the mantra of those who want to ensure that religion is relegated to houses of worship and that religious leaders do no more than facilitate an individual's relationship with God.
However, a separation between governmental agencies and faith organizations serves neither sector, and certainly does not serve the poor of the planet.
Embracing the contributions of religion and religious leaders in order to achieve common goals is not incompatible with the separation of church and state. The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals and the soon-to-be-implemented Sustainable Development Goals focus on the improvement of life on our planet for the greatest number of people. The goals are rooted in eradicating poverty, protecting the environment, improving access to education and healthcare, and ending open-defecation and the thousands of daily deaths attributed to it. These are not goals achievable only from the top-down.
"The achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals requires both the top-down implementation of infrastructure and bottom-up change in behavior and beliefs."
For example, millions of toilets have been built by UNICEF and other organizations that are not being used. Why? For myriad reasons, varying between village and home, the people don't want to use them. Ending open defecation is no more achievable by constructing toilets than ending illiteracy is achievable by building schools. The achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals requires both the top-down implementation of infrastructure and bottom-up change in behavior and beliefs. Faith leaders and faith based organizations are, indisputably, the best suited to help achieve this change.
When 83% of the world's population identify as members of a faith, faith is truly the potential magic wand in our hands. Faith-based organizations have the power to shift values and change behavior. Eradication of poverty and sustainable development require people of every socio-economic status, culture, creed, color and country, to make different choices about how they live. We must change how we eat, how we shop, how we travel, how we measure "success." We must, in Pujya Swamiji's words, "focus more on filling our selves than on filling our shelves." As Mahatma Gandhi famously said: "There is always enough for everyone's need but never enough for even one man's greed." Ill-informed decisions, from the personal to the international, have brought our planet to the brink of destruction. We need masses of people to make changes in their lives and lifestyles. I believe the fastest and most effective way to achieve this is through faith based organizations that connect the world's people with the guiding principles, morals and values of their lives - their own religion.
By relegating religion and faith to Friday evenings or Sunday mornings or our life after death, we are depriving ourselves of one of the greatest tools we have to save our planet.
Of course there are challenges. Religion may be co-opted by those with political or financial agendas. This is true about nearly any sector to which one looks. There are stories of doctors raping patients on the operating tables, stories of academic administrators colluding to falsify test scores, stories of lawyers swindling their clients out of life savings. This does not mean, though, that we don't go to the doctor when we are sick. It doesn't mean we don't send our children to school. It doesn't mean we fight our own legal battles singlehandedly. While we must recognize the possibility of corruption, we cannot forego the far greater potential for assistance and cooperation from faith based organizations.
While we certainly want to maintain the founding principle of separation of church and state, religious institutions can and should be welcomed as partners by political, financial and humanitarian institutions in the service of eradicating poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring a healthy and sustainable future for the world's population.