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The State Department gets religion

August 19, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Shaun Casey at unveiling of State Department's Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Shaun Casey at unveiling of State Department's… (Jin Lo Scalzo / EPA )

Does the 1st Amendment’s ban on the “establishment of religion” end at the water’s edge? That question arose several years ago when it was revealed that the U.S. Agency for International Development had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to rehabilitate four mosques in Fallouja, Iraq, the site of a major U.S. military operation in 2004, and had included biblical references in educational materials for an AIDS prevention program in Africa.

Some disapproved, but The Times was supportive. Our editorial said:

“Foreign policy considerations should allow Washington to engage and even aid religious institutions in those countries in ways that would be forbidden here.... It would be perverse to interpret the 1st Amendment as prohibiting the U.S. from subsidizing an Islamic school for girls in Afghanistan.”

The role of religion in foreign policy received new attention this month when Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, which  will “engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges.” The effort will be led by Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

Kerry noted that “from Egypt to Ethiopia, from Peru to Pakistan, religious leaders every day are taking on some of the toughest challenges that we face. They’re healing communities. They’re providing counsel to families. They’re working in partnership with governments for the enduring health of our planet and its people.”

Of course, in some countries religious leaders also are exacerbating political divisions or oppressing those who think differently. But that only strengthens the case for engagement.

The new office has its critics. Americans United, which supports separation of church and state, worried that Kerry and Casey “tended to overlook nonreligious communities” in their remarks on the day the office was unveiled. The organization urged that the office “partner with minority faiths and secular communities in order to develop a nuanced engagement strategy.”

That’s good advice. Just as a good diplomat will develop contacts with a country’s political opposition, a “faith-based” initiative in the State Department would be wise to cultivate minority religious movements and not just a country's ecclesiastical establishment. And, of course, diplomats should reach out to secular organizations as well. But Kerry makes a persuasive case that there should be a special focus on engagement with religious groups.

In announcing the new office, Kerry said that he was mindful of Thomas Jefferson’s admonition about the wall of separation between church and state. But that wall is a lot more porous in the foreign policy context than it is domestically. Diplomats must take the world as they find it, and in large parts of the world the most important force -- for good or ill -- may not be the government.


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