When Secretary John Kerry took over the State Department from Secretary Clinton, he found that the legal and conceptual framework for an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives had already been laid. Deciding to go ahead with the new office, Kerry called a professor of theology at Wesley Theological Seminary named Shaun Casey, who happens to be one of the most religiously knowledgeable and connected people in Washington.
Responding to the opportunity, Prof. Casey took a leave from his position at the seminary and, since the middle of the summer, Casey has been busy launching the new initiative in the hopes that awareness about religion and religious actors will someday be included the training and day to day execution of America's foreign policy.
I recently spoke to Prof. Casey, who now has the title of 'Special Advisor' on the phone about the exciting work he is doing, what he hopes to be the future of religion at State, and why his wife tells him to wipe that dopey grin off his face when he comes home from work.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Ok, so why are you having so much fun at your new job at State?
Special Advisor Shaun Casey: Well there was never an office like this and there is universal affirmation that the State Department needs a capacity to understand the political and social implications of lived religion across the globe in order to advance our foreign policy. As Secretary Kerry said a the roll-out for the office, 'We ignore the role of religion at our peril.'
So I get to come to work every day in a building with thousands of people who are fighting extreme poverty, expanding human rights and are trying to mitigate conflict and build peace around the globe.
How are you deciding where to prioritize?
Basically, I have three jobs. The first is to advise the Secretary on specific policy issues in terms of how religion cuts across that issue.
The second mission is to help build the capacity for religious engagement in this building. We have some examples in the past where the United States government has done some good things in terms of engaging religious actors but it has often been ad hoc and personality driven; and never had a systematic strategy. How do we draw a picture that includes the public force of religion politically and in civil society in these countries where we have embassies? How do we change our training here to make it a routine part of our vision of diplomacy that we have people who understand how to interpret religion.
And the third job is to make this office be a conduit or connector for faith-based groups and NGOs.
If you had all the foreign service folks in a room, what one piece of advice would you give them that they might not get from anyone else.
One of our first tasks is to study a handful of countries to see what has worked historically in terms of religious engagement and build some best practices. We want to think about the skill set among US State Department personnel that has led to those successes and teach that skill set in the Foreign Service Institute.
Is there a religious component to the training that the Foreign Service Corps get now?
There is currently an elective course offered in religion and foreign policy and I got invited to teach a one-hour session. It's a four day course, so I sort of parachuted in briefly and talked about the concept of 'lived religion' in which you ask the questions: What difference does it make that one affiliates with a particular religion, in a particular location and how religion gets lived out in a population?
That takes anthropological skills. It takes the ability to interpret religious symbols, and so you have to have a 'trained curiosity.' I think those are skill sets that can be taught. And so I like to call it 'sophisticating your curiosity' to look for the religious story and the power of religion within a particular country in which you might be working.
What is the way that the State Department can work with people of faith abroad knowing that the goal of the State Department is not only altruistic but also to serve the interest of United States?
That's a great question because we do have a foreign policy and we need to be transparent about that. If you are patronizing or you have a hidden agenda, religious leaders pick up on that very, very quickly.
However, religious leaders do care about fighting poverty. And if a country is experiencing extreme poverty, they are looking for partners and the United States government can be a powerful partner. Or when there is a country where there are violations of human rights, religious leaders often are the folks who are trying to defend those oppressed minorities so that there is an overlap there I think between US foreign policy and religious leaders.
Also, while in some places religion feeds conflict, religious leaders and communities can be the most powerful forces for mediating, preventing and ending conflict.
Does your office also have money to give out? What is the role of funding religious groups?
We do not make any grants.
What would success look like for your office fifty years from now?
Several things come to mind. One is that religious groups know we're here and they can register their policy insights with us.
Secondly, I would hope that we could point to conflict prone areas and be there with resources before they become expansively violent. I also hope we can come in places that are already violent and help turn the temperature down.
We are in a remarkable time in global history where hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of extreme poverty. I hope that trend continues. You look at what's happening in terms of HIV prevalence. You look at the fight against malaria - there are faith-based groups at the van guard of that - often times with US government dollars funding their work. I hope we can look back for 50 years and see that malaria is under control.
I think we could see some bold calls to end extreme poverty for instance by 2030 and I think faith-based groups are going to be part of that. I think the US government will sign off on that. I hope that we can see greater global progress. I would also like to talk about human rights.
I'm not always clear of the motivations that people talk about religious freedom rights..
International religious freedom rights are important, but that's not all I mean by rights. I think faith groups have a role to play in LGTB rights globally; and rights of disabled people all around the globe. In fact probably the first concrete thing the Secretary asked me to do was education on the disabilities treaty that is about to be the subjects of hearings in the Senate.
I think 130 countries have ratified the treaty, we have not. Secretary Kerry has asked me to educate faith groups because, in fact, most faith-based groups understand the need to protect international disability rights; and they see this treaty as a chance to to protects the rights of hundreds of million people are going forward.
Ghanaian cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson attends a mass at the St Peter's basilica on March 12, 2013 at the Vatican. Cardinals moved into the Vatican today as the suspense mounted ahead of a secret papal election with no clear frontrunner to steer the Catholic world through troubled waters after Benedict XVI's historic resignation.The 115 cardinal electors who pick the next leader of 1.2 billion Catholics in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel will live inside the Vatican walls completely cut off from the outside world until they have made their choice. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
In this photo taken on Thursday, July 18, 2013, Hauwa Jubril, a muslim girl sit outside a shop in Obalende, Lagos, Nigeria. Nigerias secular and Islamic laws clashed when a senator notorious for marrying a 14-year-old filibustered a vote to amend the constitution by insisting that a girl child comes of age when she marries, not at 18. Enraged activists are demanding the senate revisit the vote, asking how a known pedophile could get away with subverting the countrys constitution. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
This photo taken on January 5, 2013 shows a man lighting a candle during a Christmas Eve service at the Khor Virab church outside Yerevan. Millions of Armenians will celebrate Christmas on January 6. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Pilgrims from Fiji attend the morning Mass of Pope Benedict XVI at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney on July 20, 2008. Far fewer people than the predicted crowd of 500,000 turned out for a final World Youth Day mass led by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday, leaving one venue almost empty of worshippers, AFP photographers said. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
The president of Macedonia'parliament Trajko Veljanoski kisses the hand of Pope Francis during a private audience on May 24, 2013 at the Vatican. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Visitors light up candles inside a room 'The space for Recollection and Prayer' to commemorate victims of the communist repression in Romania, in Sighetu Marmatiei on July 13, 2013. Former dissidents and political prisoners gathered in Romania on July 14, 2013 at a museum commemorating those who suffered abuses under communism, set up 20 years ago at the site of a prison where scores died. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Shiite Muslim worshippers light candles outside Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi shrine during the annual festival of Shabaniyah, which marks the anniversary of the birth of the ninth-century Shiite leader known as the Hidden Imam, in Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 24, 2013. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban) Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Njemps tribemen dance in front of a statue of Buddha at the Gallmann nature conservancy near Kinamba, Laikipia, Northern Kenya on March 4, 2012. High Priest Shinso Ito and a group of Shinnyo-en priests arrived in Kenya to perform a Buddhist fire and water ceremony for the first time ever in Africa.The ceremony was attended by over 300 spiritual leaders and was streamed live on the internet to millions of viewers and devotees globally. The ceremony involved Kenyan tribal elders and members of the Njemps, Pokot Samburu, Kikuyu and Turkana communites. AFP PHOTO/Carl de Souza (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
A faithful holds an image of the 'The Lord of Miracles', worshipped by the majority of the Catholic Peruvians, during his main procession on October 18, 2012 in Lima. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Catholics touch an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ as it is taken along with the World Youth Day (WYD) Cross that in 1984 Pope John Paul II entrusted the youth of the world, across Rocinha shantytown in Rio de Janeiro on July 18, 2013. The Pope is due in Rio for the July 22-28 Catholic WYD, an event expected to attract two million people from around the globe. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Roman Catholics listen to Bishop Noel Treanor during mass at St Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sunday, March, 21, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI has apologised to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. Extracts from the Popes letter were read at all masses across Ireland Sunday, in the pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, he acknowledged the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims and their families. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
A Falun Gong Practitioner poses on the 14th anniversary of the beginning of the persecution of Falun Gong in China on July 21, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. In July of 1999, the communist Chinese government outlawed the spiritual practise of Falun Gong, declaring it illegal and forbidding citizens to practise. Followers believe thousands of practitioners have been killed, imprisoned or put in labour camps in China since 1999. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Pope Benedict XVI (R) poses with Iceland president Olafur Ragnar Grinsson during a private audience at the Vatican on March 4, 2011. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
The Russian Orthodox cathedral of St. Nicholas is seen on a clear day in Vienna on April 1, 2013. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Dozens of people queue in front of the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam on May 1, 2013. A day after the crowning of king Willem-Alexander the church has opened it's doors for those who want to see the church in the same setting as during the ceremony on April 30. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Eight new priests prepare for their ordination at the Freisinger Dom cathedral on June 29, 2013 in Freising, Germany. Freising Cathedral, also called Saint Mary and Corbinian Cathedral, is a romanesque basilica in Freising, Bavaria. The Freising Cathedral is also known for being the place where Pope Benedict XVI was ordained a priest. Bavaria, Germany's southern-most state, is heavily Catholic. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Nuns walk on a popular shopping street in Seoul on July 6, 2013. Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed in South Korea, which is predominantly Buddhist and Christian. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
A picture taken on July 12, 2013 shows a nun walking by the Sacre-Coeur basilica in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Tourists enjoy a sunny day on March 25, 2010 at the traditional Eastern market in the Old Town Square in Prague. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan (R) and Galician regional president Alberto Nunez Feijoo (L) attend a concert at Cathedral on June 15, 2013 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
This photo taken on on June 27, 2013 shows a muslim Uighur walking through dusty streets in Turpan, Xinjiang Province. China's constitution proclaims the country's dozens of minority groups as integral and equal parts of the national tapestry -- but analysts say the mishandling of such distinctions is a driver of unrest in remote Xinjiang. Beijing's propaganda portrays the vast western region more than four times the size of Japan as a harmonious land of colourful, mostly Muslim Uighur natives and hard-working migrants prospering under Communist Party rule. Statistics come from the WIN-Gallup International "Religion and Atheism Index" of 2013
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