08/13/2013 12:54 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

The State Department's Great Leap Faithward

In February I wrote an article asking, Will Kerry Bring Faith to Foreign Policy? Six months into Kerry's tenure as Secretary of State the answer appears to be an emphatic yes -- though now begins the hard work of implementing his vision for religious engagement.

Last week Kerry officially launched the State Department's new Office of Faith-based Community Initiatives. The culmination of several years of concerted effort by Obama administration officials and their allies outside government, the new office has a mandate to, in Kerry words, "engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges."

To lead the office, Kerry turned to his friend Shaun Casey, a seminary professor who served as a faith outreach advisor on Obama's 2008 campaign. A Harvard-trained ethicist with expertise in just war theory, post-conflict reconstruction, and poverty, Casey is well suited to serve as Kerry's special advisor on faith-related issues.

As the State Department now has a multitude of specialized offices led by special advisors, it's easy to miss the special significance of Casey's new shop.

American diplomacy has taken a great leap faithward. It wasn't long ago that some scholars and former diplomats excoriated the State Department as "the home of secular fundamentalism," an agency afflicted with "secular myopia" and "Religion Avoidance Syndrome."

Critics pointed to the Department's vigorous opposition to congressional legislation in the late 1990s that ultimately created the Office of International Religious Freedom. Then, during the Bush administration, even after several federal agencies created faith-based offices, the State Department appeared to be of little faith.

To be fair, the State Department did pour billions of dollars into Muslim outreach in the aftermath of 9/11. But that public diplomacy effort focused primarily on making America more popular in the Middle East rather than on genuinely listening to and partnering with Muslims and other religious communities around the world on issues of mutual interest.

Organizational theory tells us that all institutions, including government agencies, have a distinctive organizational culture -- a complex set of norms, values, and systems that implicitly govern corporate life. That culture is cemented over time, becoming increasingly difficult to change. Among America's diplomats, it seems organizational culture included the strict separation of church and the State Department.

But that culture is changing. Under Clinton and now Kerry, the State Department has developed a wide range of religious engagement efforts that paved the way for the Office of Faith-based Community Initiatives. No congressional pressure was necessary. Engaging religious actors is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of American statecraft. A new U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement calls for broader collaboration with religious groups on sustainable development, human rights, and conflict mitigation.

Kerry underscored this strategy in his remarks announcing the faith-based office: "I say to my fellow State Department employees, all of them, wherever you are, I want to reinforce a simple message: I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together. You will have the support of this Department in doing so."

Given the context of the remarks, Kerry's "simple message" was the most straightforward and forward-leaning directive on religious engagement ever voiced by an acting Secretary of State.

In her 2006 book The Mighty and the Almighty, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for greater foreign policy attention to religion but lamented her own inattention to global religious dynamics during her time as America's top diplomat. As a corrective, she urged future diplomats to "learn as much as possible about religion, and then incorporate that knowledge into their strategies."

Kerry is putting Albright's advice into practice. But the faith-based office is not an end in itself. It's just the end of the beginning. What waits to be seen now is what impact Kerry's directive and the new office will have on the State Department's ability to advance U.S. interests in a faith-filled world.

Creating a hopeful office doesn't guarantee the hoped for outcomes. Still, my former State Department colleague, Peter Mandaville, has argued that the new office "has the potential to be genuinely transformational with respect to how the United States does diplomacy."

To realize its transformative potential, the faith-based office must continue to shape the Department's culture in a more faith-attentive direction--by both modeling constructive religious engagement and by training colleagues to go and do likewise. After all, most faith-based engagement will take place outside the faith-based office, principally in U.S. embassies overseas. Our diplomats need to be better equipped to address the complex ways religious beliefs and motivations intertwine with politics, economics, and other issues.

Admittedly, religion is a diplomatic and constitutional minefield. It's often quite tricky for diplomats, especially those not well versed in religion, to know who, when, where, and how to engage.

But the why is always clear. As Melissa Rogers, Director of the White House faith-based office, said at the launch event last week, "The potential for religious communities to spark both positive and negative movement makes it essential for the United States to understand these communities and to engage with them. As the State Department does its work around the world, it must have a firm grasp of these dynamics and it must know how to address them in ways that are informed and intelligent."

In other words, diplomatic engagement with religious groups is in U.S. national interests. That's ultimately why it matters. And that's why the faithward evolution of the State Department's culture and the creation of the faith-based office are such promising developments.