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The State Department and “religious engagement”

posted by The Editors

Three recent articles have drawn attention to plans at the U.S. Department of State to create a new “office of religious engagement.” In a report published this past May by Religion & Politics, Amy Frykholm considers plans for the new office in the context of the State Department’s efforts to pursue “greater religious engagement” under the leadership of Hilary Clinton:

There are other reasons the U.S. State Department has traditionally avoided directly engaging religious groups: in places of religious conflict, diplomats do not want to be seen as favoring one religious group over another. They do not want to unwittingly violate the First Amendment, a poorly understood clause about the “establishment” of religion. They are not comfortable themselves speaking a religious language. 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.”

The Religious Engagement Report (RER) that Birdsall, Lalka and others initiated, has served as a significant document as the Religion and Foreign Policy Group gets on its feet within the Strategic Dialogue. Meanwhile, the dimensions of religious engagement have been expanding. An office of religious engagement that will answer directly to the Secretary of State is opening—initiated under Clinton, but carried over into the Kerry administration. Chris Seiple sees the State Department, “for the first time, intentionally and comprehensively seeking to institutionalize its engagement with religious actors worldwide.”

Reflecting on plans for the new office, Peter Mandaville of Brookings writes:

As the U.S. State Department prepares to stand up a new office of religious engagement, the working group on faith-based leaders in diplomacy at the upcoming 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum will provide an opportunity to reflect on how Washington has dealt with this issue to date and what a new approach might offer. The new office, authorized just as Hillary Clinton was leaving office, represents the culmination of years of work by several State Department officials. They often faced an uphill battle, finding it difficult to convince their colleagues and principals that U.S. foreign policy needed to take religious engagement seriously. To be sure, the basic idea is not a new one. Already in 1995, Doug Johnston had identified religion as the missing dimension of statecraft in a book of the same name. By the 2000s, the promotion of international religious freedom had become a focal point of U.S. foreign policy, but direct engagement with religious actors remained elusive.

Of course there will be ongoing challenges that need to be tackled. One of the toughest is the legal limit imposed by the constitution on direct U.S. government support for religion. Such restrictions have in the past made some diplomats wary of being too forward leaning in the religious engagement space for fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Here it is crucial that our front line diplomats and development workers receive clear legal guidance that can enable religious engagement in the course of advancing their mission and our interests while still respecting the Establishment Clause.

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.

And, in a recent post for Foreign Policy, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd writes:

Americans are proud of our achievements in the field of religion. We see ourselves as having invented religious freedom and mastered religious toleration. Creating an office to spread the word overseas to less fortunate corners of the world allows us to feel morally secure, even superior, at a time of economic uncertainty and global decline. It deflects attention from suffering at home, such as violence against immigrants and rising economic inequality. And it fits with a widely held, if rarely discussed, tenet of U.S. foreign policy: national security interests are often understood to require the United States to engineer religious affairs abroad.

Some will defend this U.S. religious interventionism in the name of government support for religious pluralism, international religious freedom, or national security. The new office at the State Department will be at the forefront of these efforts, working to engage and shape religious affairs overseas. The new religious establishment is here.

For more on the topic of U.S. foreign policy, religious engagement, and the politics of religious freedom, browse two extensive TIF discussions on religious freedom here and here.

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