As religion fuels conflicts in Burma, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere, the U.S. State Department has decided to drop its long-term opposition to religion as part of its diplomacy. A newly-created Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives defies a long-term taboo at State against working with religion and religious leaders as a possible violation of the U.S. Constitutional ban on church-state relations.
Critics have long urged State to drop this legalistic objection and open dialogue with Islamic leaders in conflicted areas as a way to reach the observant population with appeals for tolerance and non-violence.
It remains to be seen if the religious leaders backing al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other extremist groups will either accept the new opening or drop their uncompromising hatred of anyone who is of a different faith or political view.
But it has been called a first step to reach out to moderates. And it appears especially promising if it engages American Muslim leaders imbued with American values such as tolerance and human rights to reach out to fellow Muslims abroad.
"We ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril," Secretary of State John Kerry said at the State Department August 7.
Kerry added that Saudi and Jordanian political leaders told him they "recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence.".
The new office, headed by Christian ethics professor Shaun Casey, "is to engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges," Kerry said.
The office in some respects will be following in the footsteps of a small non-government organization -- The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) -- which for the past 14 years has been using religious values to bridge differences between adversaries and to counter religious extremism in conflict-prone regions of the world.extremist views.
For the past seven years ICRD worked with leaders of Pakistan's madrasas (religious schools) to enhance their curriculums and transform their teaching methods. The Taliban and other extremist groups based in Pakistan were born in the madrasas which continue to churn out young men ready to defend Islam wherever they are told it is under attack.
In one of these madrasas I visited in Lahore I saw the brainwashing of young boys who are taught to memorize the Quran in Arabic -- a language they do not understand -- but remain illiterate in their national language Urdu.
While the U.S. has sparked intense hatred in Pakistan by drone attacks on militants that sometimes kill innocent civilians, ICRD trainers worked with teachers and leaders of the religious schools from all five braches of Pakistani Islam to promote critical thinking skills among the students as well as human rights and religious tolerance -- subjects long ignored in favor of armed jihad in defense of Islam.
"We operate on the premise that not everyone on any given side in a conflict is bad and those who are bad are not bad all the time," said ICRD founder Douglas Johnston in an interview. "So we try to play to the angels of their higher nature.
"It is very encouraging to see this new initiative at the State Department. For five years the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad opposed our work with the madrasas. But two years ago, we were visited by a contingent from State who said they wanted to build their strategy around our work. They apparently came to realize that what we were doing with the madrasas was every bit as strategic as anything else that was taking place either on or off the battlefield."
Johnston said he believes the rejection was due to widespread fear of violating the U.S. Constitution separation of church and state, or because endorsing the idea that an American organization was working in the religious schools of Pakistan was "too politically hot to handle."
Studies show that 85 percent of the world's people are religious. So trying to carry out diplomacy, aid, development, education and other programs while ignoring religion limits the chances of success, he said.
"The United States suffers because it has ignored religion's role in international politics," he said.
After a decade of being ignored, State Department officials visited ICRD two years ago and "told us they want to build a strategy around our work." Now State has the new office and has begun working with ICRD and other NGOs in the religious arena.
Johnston believes that much of what passes for religious conflict is really a struggle for political power and distribution of resources. "At their core, all world religions are about neighborly concern and the betterment of humanity," he said. But far too often these values are "perverted" by power politics and religion becomes "a badge of identity and a mobilizing vehicle for conflict".
In his recent book "Religion, Terror and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement" Johnston says that it is ironic that, while rejecting religion from foreign policy, the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military was able to repair mosques and support other religious activities, but USAID was prevented from such work by its lawyers, said Johnston. The military was able to do so because it furthered national security and had a secular purpose.
When I noted that Iraq is not much of a success and appears to be tumbling headfirst into sectarian conflict these days, Johnston said Al Qaeda "is stirring things up."
Some of the places he expects religion and diplomacy could have some results include Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Kashmir, Tunisia, Libya and Bosnia.
It remains unclear if the new office Kerry has created will be able to win over a profoundly skeptical State Department on engaging religious leaders in diplomatic outreach. We still need to resolve the ambiguity over church -state separation.