On Aug. 7, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the Department of State. This new office is focused on engaging with international religious communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the policy-making process and works with those communities to advance U.S. international diplomacy.
“We need to recognize that in a world where people of all faiths are migrating and mingling like never before, where we are this global community, we ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril,” Kerry said. “The office's mission is as clear as it is compelling. It 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.”
The office is headed by Special Advisor Shaun Casey and is seen as a portal for the United States to engage with religious leaders and organizations around the world, under the premise that understanding religion is important on an international scale.
“Religion is the lens through which people see reality; that is, religion is a meaning-making enterprise and a value-making enterprise. When people believe things about reality and about values, then they behave as a consequence,” said Dr. Philip Barlow, director of the Religious Studies program at Utah State University.
“As far as the government’s recognition of the importance of religion,” Barlow said, “I think it did come of necessity because of Sept. 11 events and the ongoing difficulties of the world. When the flying of the jets into the twin towers on September 11, 2001 happened, the high officials of the government had experts at their fingertips in all sorts of areas, but they were shockingly ill-prepared to have folks at their fingertips who understood the religious dimensions of what was going on. Religion has always been important in the behavior of people and culture whether the government recognized it or not, and we were forced to recognize it by military violence and the rise of religious turmoil and even terrorism.”
Though the initiative has logical foundations, the introduction of the office has not been without controversy. Both the legality and ethics of instigating such a measure have been called into question by many Americans.
Many critics believe the work of the office is flirting with an unconstitutional marriage of church and state, calling it an endorsement of religion. They worry that this action would empower certain leaders of religious communities. Critics claim this recognition gives religious spokespeople more power than without formal U.S. recognition and that it has the potential to endorse or discourage certain religions as a result of the U.S. relations with those religious leaders and communities.
It is also feared that by defining some religious communities as important, many other secular groups or non-recognized faiths will go underrepresented in diplomatic efforts because not every religious group can be represented or taken into account by the office.
This office is not the first federal organization to focus on engaging with religion, however it does change the tenor of the relationship the U.S. does have with religion on a global scale. The U.S. has similar domestic religious engagement offices, originally instituted under President Bush, which provide religious organizations with funding for projects and services that are in line with state purposes.
The critiques and questions raised concerning the new international religious engagement office have extended to domestic religious affairs as well.
Addressing concerns of government engagement with religions, Barlow said, “I think it’s better to have someone trying to relate to and understand these religions, but they’re going to have to do it in a way that signals that we’re not intending to approve one religion over another, except insofar as we may need to not engage in diplomatic relations casually with terrorist organizations that have religious dimensions to them.”
“I just think it’s important to understand that religious motivation is one of the prime motivators of human action,” Barlow said, “and for us to go about crashing about the world oblivious to this fact is a major problem, so again I think it is a welcome initiative even though it is a prickly and difficult one.”
As globalization continues, the need for cross-cultural understanding becomes increasingly important. The Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives seeks to improve U.S. international diplomacy by engaging with international religious communities.
Taylor Halversen is a senior at Utah State University, majoring in Communication Studies and Liberal Arts. She's from Sandy, Utah and is interested in discovering new and random things to try and attempting to live life wholly and healthily. She loves music and climbing anything from trees to mountains.