Religious State

August 20, 2013

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the creation of an Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the State Department. Most Cabinet branches have had their own faith-based office for years, and I have written about directors of the offices for the Department of Education (here) and the Department of Homeland Security (here). Interestingly, just before the announcement I had a conversation with staff of the Mennonite Central Committee - Washington Office about church-state matters and we talked about the implications of the State Department not having its own faith-based office. The individual who will lead State's faith-based effort is Shaun Casey, a Christian ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., who also served as a religious outreach adviser to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In remarks marking the announcement, Kerry called the creation of State's faith-based office a "singular, historic initiative." Kerry added about the job of the faith-based office:

So 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, which we always talk about, we ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril. ... Its 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, and there is an enormous partnership, I believe, there for the asking.
After Kerry spoke, Casey explained why he thought his position is needed:
As religious leaders and faith communities shape their environments, they also have an influence and shape our own foreign policy concerns here in the United States. It's essential for the United States to understand them and to bring them into our diplomacy and development efforts.
After Casey, Melissa Rogers, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (see background post here), spoke. She also talked about the purpose of the new office:
The office will also help spearhead a new Administration strategy that encourages engagement with religious and other community actors to advance three critical objectives: First, promoting sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response. ... The second objective is advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom. ... The third objective is preventing, mitigating, and resolving violent conflict to enhance local and regional stability and security.
It will be interesting to see how this faith-based effort at State develops. With the various faith-based offices playing a role in the confessional political efforts of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, such efforts should be watched closely.