RELIGION
08/08/2013 09:29 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2013

State Department Launches Office Of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

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Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the first Special Advisor of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, Shaun Casey, at the State Department on Wednesday. The creation of this office indicates the State Department's interest in religious engagement, which began in earnest during Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State.

According to a notice by State Department:

The new office will set Department policy on engagement with faith-based communities and will work in conjunction with bureaus and posts to reach out to those communities to advance the Department’s diplomacy and development objectives. It will also work closely with faith communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the foreign policy process, including through continued collaboration with the Department's religion and foreign policy working group. The office will collaborate regularly with other government officials and offices focused on religious issues, including the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

Casey served as a Senior Advisor for Religious Affairs and as National Evangelical Coordinator during President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, and has been serving as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for faith-based community initiatives on July 15, according to Wesley Theological Seminary, where he usually teaches as a professor of Christian ethics.

Melissa Rogers, the Director of the White House Faith-Based Office of Neighborhood Partnerships, explained the three primary goals of the office during Casey's introduction, which will be pursued through engagement with religious communities. First, to promote sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response, second, to advance pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom, and third, to enhance global and local security.

The new office has been met with a mix of excitement and apprehension from noted policy analysts and religious scholars, who realize the important role that religion plays in civil and political society while questioning the role of government in such circles.

Amy Frykholm weighed in on the matter in Religion & Politics, saying:

Up until a year ago, there were no Foreign Service courses that focused on religion. In the 1990s, the State Department created the Office for International Religious Freedom after Congress passed a law requiring an annual report on the status of persecuted minority religious groups around the world. But highlighting those human rights abuses is not the same thing as engaging religious entities.

Seeing this dearth, in 2009, Judd Birdsall, who at the time worked on the Secretary of State’s policy staff, started hosting a discussion group at the State Department called the Forum on Religion and Global Affairs. He invited people who were interested in thinking about the relationship between religion and diplomacy. Birdsall points out that engaging religious groups is just plain necessary in most of the world. “If you were a strict church-state separationist and thought we should only work with secular groups, there would be large swaths of the earth that you just couldn’t engage at all … If you don’t engage with those groups, the Taliban certainly will.”

Peter Mandaville of Brookings writes:

The State Department’s new religious engagement office hence has the potential to be genuinely transformational with respect to how the United States does diplomacy. There are already successes that it can build on, such as USAID’s Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives or some of the frontline engagement efforts undertaken by Rashad Hussain, U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—who will be attending this year’s U.S. Islamic World Forum. The relevance of religion in global affairs has never been more apparent, and it is high time that U.S. foreign policy and national security efforts begin to reflect this reality.

Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Hurd is more critical:

Surely these groups need international and local support -- but not necessarily as "religious" groups. Defining religion is no simple task. When the United States uses its authority to promote religious freedom abroad, the government weighs in on what counts as religion and what forms of religion should be protected. When the United States officially engages actors abroad as "religious," it sets standards that effectively bolster the sects, denominations, and religious authorities that it has defined as benevolent, while marginalizing less desirable counterparts.

This approach doesn't address the complex challenges posed by everyday life in religiously diverse societies. Rather, the "operationalization" of religion by the government allows it to over-simplify complex questions of causation.

The Immanent Frame asked a variety of individuals in the fields of academia, policy, and media to weigh in on the prospects for this new office as well as the potential implications for the politics of religious diversity, showcasing opinions from distinguished respondents like Margot Badran, a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Senior Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, as well as many more.

However, Kerry defended the initiative during his speech, declaring:

And I want to emphasize this to everybody because I know the question will be out there: Is this sort of a departure from the norm? No. We approach this with the full recognition and understanding of – Thomas Jefferson’s understanding and admonition about the wall of separation between church and state. But what we are doing is guided by the conviction that we have to find ways to translate our faiths into efforts that unify for the greater good. That can be done without crossing any lines whatsoever.

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