The US State Department’s embrace of religion makes a lot of sense
Katherine Marshall, The Guardian, 22 August 2013
The launch of the new US State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives this month by Secretary John Kerry has prompted a slew of questions and something of a stir: is such a new office needed? What will it do? Are there special risks involved? Is it proper, in the light of the fabled Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between religion and state?
The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. The new office promises to help fill an important gap in America’s diplomatic and development outlook, giving focus to an important and often neglected dimension of world affairs. It’s a modest initiative, very much in line with the goal of “smart” foreign policy. The office has a savvy and sensible leader (theologian Shaun Casey). But all the questions are worth probing. There are indeed some risks that should be kept in mind.
The case for taking religion seriously is rather obvious. An often cited figure tells much of the story: some 85% of the world’s population is religious. Religious institutions, ideas and leaders play vital roles in countless areas. As John Kerry has said, religion is integral to everything his diplomats are doing, and offers plenty of insights into knotty and urgent problems like failed and failing states, global health, and climate change. And there’s also good evidence that American diplomats and development officials have often neglected the religious dimension: witness, for example, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s book The Mighty and the Almighty, which argues forcefully that better knowledge about religious dimensions would have led to better policy.
America’s talented diplomats do not always have a tin ear for religion: many wise and knowledgeable people have reached out, listened, and worked in creative partnerships. But institutionally, religion has been a misfit in the diplomatic world.
The major training institutions from which diplomats are drawn rarely offer courses on the topic. The general international affairs culture has not favored active engagement or even elementary understanding. The religious worlds are immensely complex and dynamic, full of political landmines, so the hesitations to engage are understandable, and they are accentuated by the rather murky understanding of the constitutional limits on America’s direct involvement with religion. But for some years widely different voices have called for a smarter, professional, and open approach to religion. We should view Casey’s appointment in that spirit.
A first priority is understanding. Secretary Kerry rightly emphasized listening. Excellent. Religious actors can bring rich new perspectives about what is happening in the world, and their voices are significant in how America is seen.