Faith And Foreign Policy: New State Department Office Promotes ‘Religious Engagement’

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry formally launched the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, to be headed by Wesley Theological Seminary’s Dr. Shaun Casey.

The State Department’s newest office looks to religion for policy solutions.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry formally launched the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, to be headed by Wesley Theological Seminary’s Dr. Shaun Casey.

Casey, a professor of Christian ethics, is no stranger to politics: in 2008, he served as a special advisor to the Obama campaign. Casey is certainly no right-wing ideologue. But his appointment, and the office he’s set to lead, will inevitably raise questions about Christianity’s influence on U.S. engagement and intervention overseas.

Kerry used explicitly Christian language to defend the new office, which will address human rights, conflict and climate change as its three major objectives. These issues, he said, are a “challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians – safe guarders of God’s creation.”

He also stated, “And there is common ground between the Abrahamic faiths, and, in fact, between the Abrahamic faiths and all religions and philosophies, whether you’re talking about Hindu or Confucianism or any other of the many of the world’s different approaches to our existence here on the planet and to our relationship with a supreme being.” This would seem to leave out non-theistic communities or even Buddhism.

Kerry closed his remarks with a direct quote from the Book of Mark.

Casey’s remarks were similarly Christian—not a surprise, given his position at Wesley. He lauded the potential of religious groups to address sectarian conflict, crippling poverty and human rights. And that potential may well exist – but we need to keep a few things in mind.

Religious outreach by any government office needs to be balanced. The voices of minority religious and non-religious communities should receive equal notice. In their remarks this week, Kerry and Casey tended to overlook non-religious communities. If the goal is to reduce conflict, poverty and other injustices, then the perspectives of all affected communities are equally relevant and equally valuable.

Kerry and Casey both emphasized that they’re working alongside representatives of Judaism and Islam as they design the new office. That’s great, but it’s also not enough.  The world’s belief landscape is more diverse than this office reflects.

Other safeguards are needed. The office should partner with minority faiths and secular communities in order to develop a nuanced engagement strategy.

Kerry and Casey also said that they want to partner with religious leaders and faith-based NGOs in order to end conflict and protect human rights. But there’s no word yet on how they plan to address states that suppress secularism and minority faiths. They also need to consider how to redeem the damage wrecked by religious NGOs that push a dangerous Religious Right agenda as part of their work overseas. These are significant challenges for the new office. 

Kerry said he’ll protect the wall of separation, and Casey has indicated he’ll do the same. Time will tell if Kerry and Casey are sincere about their support for that vitally important protective barrier. We’ll be watching.