It's not an academic question, as James Ron writes in last week's Ottawa Citizen: most of the world's largest faith traditions have relief agencies, many of which serve far beyond their own faith. And those agencies are among the most prolific and powerful respondents to today's urgent tragedies. The issue might find focus in Pakistan where the Catholic Caritas, second in size only to the Red Cross, is hard at work in flood devastated regions. We find out from Kevin Hartigan, CRS's Asia manager, that the composition of local teems is indigenous. In Pakistan, over 90 per cent of their 250 staff are Muslim. The usual reasoning is that faith-based NGO's are liabilities to development work because religion inherently cultivates conflict. Faith-based agencies are like adding gas to the fire. But could it be that religious NGO's get "religion" and rather than being a liability to international development, are actually its most practical and effective practitioners?

This argument finds support by folks like Scott Thomas, Peter Berger and—yes—even a few closer to home, who argue that the power of religion in foreign policy and development needs to be re-understood, not simply in a utilitarian or pragmatic sense, but in a deeper normative way that enlists religion as part of the moral and social horizon of peoples. Religion does not simply proscribe abstract ends, in embeds means in the corporate lives of growing swathes of the globe's population. And what we call "religion"—in a unjustifiably confident manner—is in fact an unsettled consensus, both at home and abroad. Jacques Derrida has argued that the divide between the secular and the sacred is both a religious and political claim: it is theo-political. Our easy conclusion on what is and what is not religion marks us in our own religious ways inscribed in the theo-political consensus of liberal societies. But is the malaise of Westphalian secularism sufficient for the practices of development and aid that are needed the world over? Has the West been out-narrated in its own particular demarcations of religion and non-religion, and of what - as William Cavanaugh has said, people are willing to save and sacrifice for, kill and die?

Could it be that faith-based relief agencies are in a better position than most to do aid in non-modern societies?