In Defense of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives
August 20, 2013 1 Comment
Well, at least a defense of the idea of the office.
If you haven’t heard, The US State Department has announced the creation of an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. In the initial announcement of the office The State Department said that it “will focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen U.S. development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.”
Across a number of interviews, Shaun Casey, the person appointed to lead the office, has said it will focus on: the intersection of religion (again, focusing on “organizations and institutions”) and development, international religious freedom, the role of religion in promoting and protecting human rights, and the role of religion in both conflict and peacebuilding.
You can see a video of the announcement below, and a transcript of the launch can be found here:
Since the announcement a variety of critics have expressed their concerns about the new office. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, in an essay provocatively titled “What’s Wrong with Religious Freedom?”, argues, among other things, that the way the US defines religion necessarily marginalizes those in minority religions or without social and/or political power. She argues that rather than engaging international actors, especially institutions, as “religious” we should “see individuals in civic terms.” Others have questioned the compatibility of the office with the Establishment Clause in the US Constitution. The Immanent Frame convened a panel of a large number of scholars and experts to debate the merits of the office, and many of them express the concerns of Michael Altman that the task of defining “religion” is always a dangerous enterprise that has lived consequences for people in the world. And in private conversations I have heard multiple Christian theologians, ethicists, and clergy express concern about what it means to link faith with the goal of advancing “America’s interests and values.”
Against this tide of seemingly universal criticism of the office, Mark Silk gave “A Cheer for the State Department’s New Faith Office.” He argues that the rhetoric of Sen. John Kerry and Dr. Casey actually pushes against the history of the US defining religious freedom in ways that exclude marginal groups, and demonstrates an appropriate amount of humility in undertaking the task at hand. I want to join Prof. Silk and give a second cheer for the office.
I am in agreement with a group of scholars, going back at least to the publication of Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, who argue for more intentional and informed engagement with religious actors around the world. Since WWII, and especially since the end of the Cold War, political conflict has evolved away from traditional understandings of political violence as international war to intrastate conflicts which involve a variety of competing social and cultural goods including: material resources, political ideology, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. As William Cavanaugh has persuasively argued, “religion” has often been singled out as especially prone to violence and, therefore, to be excluded from “public” or “political” life and relegated to the “private” sphere. This contention cannot bear the weight of historical examination, however. In fact, insisting on this claim often obscures the violence associated with other social goods, and especially of the state itself. It is better to take R. Scott Appleby’s claim that religion is ambivalent, i.e. that it potentially contributes to both violent conflict and peacebuilding, to be the correct interpretation of religion’s impact on social and political life. Indeed, that is the understanding of religion expressed by Shaun Casey in his comments to Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
Bringing “religion” back in to our shared social and political life is important for a variety of reasons. It actually accounts for the world we live in, speaks to the actual beliefs, communities, and practices that inform a majority of the worlds populations, taps into the worlds oldest moral resources, and potentially mobilizes large numbers of people who would not otherwise be mobilized. However, the concerns of the critics are not unfounded. The US does have a history of poor engagement with religious actors. Defining “religion,” as anyone who has asked college students to define the term know, is a difficult task that often works to reinforce positions of relative power or marginality. The potential for instrumentalizing religious actors, rather than actually working with them, is always present. All of these are reasons for caution.
However, they do not lead to the conclusion that the creation of such an office is necessarily “bad.” Rather, the office can be the impetus for better engagement with and integration of religion in American foreign policy. I know of no reason to believe that Casey is unaware of the scholarship that informs the critiques which have been made. Indeed, the way he has spoken of the office indicates that they have informed his understanding of the office and how he is helping to shape its work.
It is clear that there will be negative consequences that result from this office. It is the way of politics. It is the way of the world. However, these must not be catastrophic, and there is, in my mind, a good chance that they will be less catastrophic than the way the US has engaged international religious actors in the past. Our ignorance of religion has made the world a worse place. Seeking to institutionalize a remedy to that historical failure is a worthwhile goal. (Indeed, this seems to be the impetus for the creation of the office.) The implementation of that goal is wrought with potential landmines. However, if we were always afraid of navigating such minefields we would never make moves toward a more just and peaceful world.