State Dept. seeks to broaden religious reach

July 26, 2013

The State Department announced this week the creation of its first office dedicated to outreach to the global faith community and religious leaders.

The project, born in part of recommendations by its working group on religion and foreign policy, will be headed by Shaun Casey, a United Methodist member and professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

Casey, an activist and scholar on religion and politics, said he expects the office to focus on three areas: religion and development, international religious freedom, and conflict prevention and resolution.

“I’m not naive,” Casey said. “I understand that this territory is fraught. But having said that, I think we ignore the political impact of religion at our peril.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Casey, who has served for many years as an adviser to the former senator, the “perfect” person for the role.

The State Department said the new office “will focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen U.S. development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.”

Melissa Rogers, the new director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said in a statement: “Shaun’s appointment is part of a larger State Department strategy to deepen its engagement with faith and other community leaders. These leaders play key roles in promoting sustainable development, providing humanitarian assistance, advancing pluralism, protecting human rights like the right to religious freedom, and countering violent extremism. Shaun’s background and abilities make him a great selection for this post, and I’m looking forward to working with him in the days ahead.”

For years, religious activists have called on the State Department to deepen its relationships with and understanding of religious people and leaders around the world. Douglas Johnston, president of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, said that since “85 percent of the world’s population derives their reason for being from religion,” an increasingly globalized world demands an American foreign policy that includes faith in its toolbox.

“It’s all about trying to make religion part of the solution to some of these intractable identity-based conflicts,” Johnston said. His organization has been on the front lines of religious engagement, including hosting a program in Pakistani madrassas that worked with Muslim leaders there to enhance their curriculum and rethink their approach to religious tolerance and human rights.

But before the new State Department office deploys a strategy of religious engagement, it will first have to establish guidelines for how it will operate, keeping in mind concerns about the constitutionality of mixing church and state and the potential perception of the government using faith for its own aims.

“I have to be careful, I have to be diligent, I have to be inclusive. We have to do this office right,” Casey said.

Casey added: “One of my mentors once said that ‘government engagement with religion is sort of like brain surgery. You have to do it very, very carefully.’ So I’m fully aware of the pitfalls, but I’m willing to jump in trying to offer an alternative model that is inclusive, that is constitutional and that is transparent.”

Casey noted that global climate change is “a signature issue for the secretary of state and a longtime passion.” He asked, “Are there ways that we can work with international and domestic faith-based NGOS on global climate change to create a case, for instance, for how we should engage international regimes to mitigate global climate changes’ impact?

“There are fruitful ways for us to engage with some of those faith groups to see if we can’t have a multiplying effect on persuading other governments, and even perhaps people in our own society, that we need to do more to engage on rolling back global climate change,” he said.

Casey said he envisions American clergy members working with religious leaders in other countries and State Department officials talking about religious values with regard to climate change. In addition, he said, “the secretary himself may want to engage with international global faith leaders for whom climate change is a passion.”

Georgetown University professor Michael Kessler, who has worked with Casey on several projects, said he “brings a lot of gravitas to the position” and has an extensive religious network that he will be able to leverage. In addressing the role of religion around the world, Kessler said, “there are so many moving parts, regional areas, and you kind of have to know who to call to bring in for expert advice and to bounce ideas off of, and Shaun’s a really good guy to do that.”

Jacques Berlinerblau, also a professor at Georgetown and author of a recent book on secularism, sees promise and pitfalls with the project.

“The best thing this office could do is present the United States as what it is, which is a pluralistic, mutlireligious society in which toleration, freedom of conscience and religious liberty are placed at a premium,” he said. “As an office, if it models that, if it goes into Tunisia, Morocco, China, and says ‘Well, this is how we do it, would you like some advice? This is how we think about issues involving heresy, this is how we think about issues involving inter-religious strife, or the use of ceremonies in public places and symbols,’ it could be very, very effective. Not to inculcate people, but to lead via consensus and via example, and to just say, ‘Well, this is the model.’ If I were to set up the office, I would place an absolute emphasis on it looking like America religiously.”

The worst-case scenario for the Democrats, Berlinerblau said, is that the office becomes, or is perceived to be, ineffective, as many saw the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which focuses on domestic religious outreach. The worst case is “that nobody knows what it’s doing, nobody knows where the money is going, nobody has any idea what its mission and mandate is,” he said.

“The Republican worst-case scenario is it becomes a sort of hub for a very particular type of Christian right ideology that the office tries to impose — catastrophically that would be — on other countries,” Berlinerblau added.

Casey isn’t backing away from the possibility for controversy or conflict over the office.

But, he says, “If this office has some modest success, I think it’s going to help advance some of our most deeply held values.”

“I think the question from a moral perspective, I think one of the great questions of our age for any faith group, is ‘What does the current generation owe succeeding generations?’ I am very much committed to working for a government that is in fact interested in handing off a safe planet, to handing off a peaceful rather than violent world to the next generation. I think that’s the big moral question of our day: What legacy are we going to leave behind?”

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