(Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

(Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Last August, to the delight of religion scholars everywhere, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that if he had college to do again, he would major in comparative religion. Kerry made the statement as he installed Shaun Casey as special advisor to lead the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. Casey, a theologian and seminary professor, beamed at the diplomat’s side, becoming the stand-in for Kerry’s unrealized formation in religious studies.

Shortly thereafter, I visited Casey at his new office at the State Department, which on that Wednesday felt unsettled. The air bristled with anticipation over the Obama administration’s response to chemical attacks on Syrian civilians. Casey’s office was hosting some of that tension. I walked in following his meeting with representatives of a peace church who insisted that he urge Secretary Kerry against military strikes. “Boy, did I get an earful,” Casey said. “They told me the usual: that violence begets violence, that we were showing a ‘failure of imagination.’ I told them they had to do better than that. That I can’t go down the hall to the Secretary’s office and tell him he has ‘a failure of imagination.’”

This tone of Niebuhrian realism is half-ironic. Casey was raised in the Church of Christ, a brand of Christian evangelicalism that was once pacifistic. By his era, however, that tradition had lost its radical Protestant commitment to Christian peace, and today it comfortably embraces the nationalist message of “Support Our Troops.” Casey describes a formative experience of walking to register for the draft in the last months of the Vietnam War, trying to make out whether he could qualify as a conscientious objector. As he walked, Casey says, he realized that “in my own tradition, I didn’t know how to parse that question.” Since then, his professional training and service have been shaped by seeking improved tools for discerning complex civil and theological issues. He describes the questions that have driven his career: “What are the political and public consequences of religious life? What are the political implications of being a member of a religious community?”

Since his walk to the draft board in the early 1970s, Casey has moved back and forth between academic and policy worlds in ways few in either politics or religion have travelled. The rarity of that dual credentialing, says Charles Mathewes, an academic colleague at the University of Virginia, is what makes Casey the best man for his current position. “Shaun operates simultaneously in two parallel universes and on two professional calendars,” he says. Mathews recalls the time that he called his friend to congratulate him on the publication of his book in the fall of 2008. “Shaun said, ‘Thanks!’ and then immediately, ‘Can we talk in a couple of months? I’ve got the head of the Southern Baptist Convention on the other line.’” As senior advisor for religious affairs and as national evangelical coordinator of Obama’s faith outreach staff, Casey had no time to rest on academic laurels.

 A large part of Casey’s work in the early 2000s, evidenced by his time with the Obama campaign, was to help key Democratic policy makers connect with religious practitioners and institutions through the language and logic of faith and values. Casey’s day job, meanwhile, has been the education of future practitioners. He has not only served as an associate professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Seminary (a role from which he is currently on leave), but has also been active in his the association of his professional guild, chairing the Public Understanding of Religion Committee of the American Academy of Religion.

It was in college that Casey recognized the deep appeal of blended scholarship and practice at the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics. Two of his professors at Abilene Christian University in Texas had studied at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and brought that ethos to their teaching. “I fell in with these people; I really admired them,” Casey says. “They were scholar/practitioners. They’d created a theoretical, practical union in lives that united advocacy and scholarship.” Casey went on to receive his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) from HDS, a school that he otherwise would never have considered attending. (Full disclosure: I have been serving as a lecturer at HDS since 2012, and I received my M.Div. degree from the school in 2004.)

After receiving his M.Div., Casey had a brief stint as a pastor in Jackson, Mississippi,* but the life of ministry didn’t stick. “I came back with big questions, and I wanted to chase the intellectual work,” he says of his return to Harvard. Enrolling this time at the Kennedy School of Government, Casey again found that scholar/practitioners had the most to teach him. There he worked closely with Richard Neustadt, a fourth-generation advisor to Democratic presidents.

Another scholar/practitioner who would profoundly shape Casey’s sense of vocation returned to Harvard from Washington, D.C., around the same time. Father J. Bryan Hehir was and remains a reigning public intellectual on the tradition of Catholic Social Justice, teaching across the university at both Harvard Divinity School and the Kennedy School of Government. Hehir is well-respected by many professionals, moving with singular credibility among policy, academic, and ecclesial worlds as both ethicist and strategic advisor. Casey had already admired Hehir from afar. As a pastor, he had been part of reviewing a draft copy of “The Challenge of Peace,” the pastoral statement on nuclear disarmament that Hehir had penned for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. “I remember thinking of the Catholic bishops at the time, ‘How brilliant this is, that they can speak from particular tradition but address the global questions. That they speak openly, wanting to engage other people of good will,’” Casey says. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do: to talk out of my own location, with other people of good will, about the pressing challenges of our day. I want to push the frontiers of a particular moral tradition—get it to engage in new issues.’ Even though Roman Catholicism was far distant from my tradition, it gave me an analogous world view.” 

Hehir not only espoused a particular Catholic moral tradition, but he also persuasively addressed the questions and concerns of policy makers, since he knew the policy literature on the nuclear question inside and out. “That’s seldom true of religious actors,” Casey says. “Often religious actors in public space want to jump over the politics, avoid going through policy, and go instead to righteousness. Politics is messy, it’s pluralistic. It’s hard to preserve one’s moral integrity. But you have to engage the secular world.”

After receiving his doctorate under Hehir’s advising at HDS, Casey landed at Wesley Theological Seminary in 2007. There he taught ethics and ran the “National Capital Semester for Seminarians” (NCSS), an on-the-ground D.C. program for students who want to learn the policy landscape. It also opened countless doors for Casey. “It was astounding to have that job open at the right time,” he says. “It’s been remarkable. Had I not gotten that job, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Casey’s success at Wesley followed from his ability to build strong relationships with critical players in religion and politics inside the Beltway. As director of the NCSS, he took students on hundreds of site visits, all the while building for himself a remarkable network. In time, Casey obtained fellowships at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and then the Center for American Progress. He also became friendly with Mike McCurry, a member of the Wesley Board of Governors and former spokesman for the Clinton administration and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. (McCurry just graduated from Wesley and has been hired to teach there as well.) McCurry’s coaching has been invaluable, Casey says.  When describing his “resources and role models,” he insists, “I refer first and always to my political rabbi, Mike McCurry.”

It was McCurry who introduced Casey to then-Senator Kerry, soon after the 2004 presidential election. Kerry had lost the race in part because faith voters flocked to Bush. Casey began working informally with Kerry’s staff on how the Senator might better articulate the relationship between faith and values – or, as Casey puts it, how “his political philosophy translates into public policy.” Kerry’s 2006 speech on religion and public life, delivered at Pepperdine University, was substantial fruit from that collaboration. Senator Kerry then blurbed Casey’s 2009 book, The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960, marking his appreciation for all he had learned from Casey about the politics of religion, Catholicism, and the American presidency. When Kerry was confirmed as secretary of state in January 2013, Casey got a call from the secretary’s chief of staff. They talked about Casey taking the lead in launching this faith-based office.

The issue of whether the State Department would host an office of religious outreach had been hotly debated under Hillary Clinton’s term, and Kerry’s quick movement to establish the program took many by surprise. In January 2001, the George W. Bush administration established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives through executive order, opening the possibility for federal agencies to do the same. Yet Kerry was the first secretary of state to avail of this opportunity. “Its mission is as clear as it is compelling,” said Kerry, upon its opening. “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 there, I believe, there for the asking.”

Casey’s work, then, is to oversee department policy on engagement with faith-based communities, collaborating with bureaus and posts in connecting with these communities in efforts to realize diplomacy and development objectives. It is also to work closely with faith communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the foreign policy process, as was the case with potential Syrian strikes. The office remains distinct from the State Department’s religion and foreign policy working group and other government officials and offices that focus on religious issues (e.g. the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom). Yet the groups collaborate toward shared ends of promoting sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response, advancing pluralism and human rights, and enhancing global and local security.

Many resumes stacked the pile of individuals vying for the Casey’s position, and he is well aware that he was not among the candidates who had worked for years to position themselves. In 2012, a Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, part of then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, formally recommended the establishment of an Office of Religious Engagement at the State Department. Casey was never part of this effort. The proposal languished until John Kerry took office and institutionalized the Faith-Based Community Initiative at the Department of State.

Much of the scholarly and liberal criticism of the new office arises from concerns that the establishment of this office will tacitly advance a Christian evangelical agenda. This concern is informed in large part by the proximity of Chris Seiple to then-Secretary Clinton around faith-based work. Seiple has established a high profile for himself in the small sub-industry of religion and foreign affairs, and for his organization, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). Both Seiple and IGE are transparent in their Christian commitments, seeking to improve religious freedom, improve tolerance, and make “Christ visible and Christians relevant as a result.” As president of IGE, Seiple draws on his military and diplomatic experience to advocate for strengthened U.S. government engagement with religious communities. Yet Casey is pointed in correcting the presumption that the establishment of the Office of Religious Engagement was driven by and realized as part of a Christian agenda. “The perception that it was evangelical leadership that got this office in place is incorrect,” he says. It was a coalition of actors, including secular members of the Foreign Service, he explains, who saw the need for this skill and focus to be institutionalized.

Casey differentiates himself not only from IGE, but also from the Office of Religious Freedom at State. “This office is not in that space,” he says. Casey pointedly notes that “religion and human rights,” one of the key mandate areas of his office, and the Kerry State Department more largely, “is much broader than just religious freedom. If I’m working in the religious freedom space, it’s if I’m invited in,” he says. Casey insists that neither training in ethics, nor personal religious commitment, nor scholarship, are requisites for his position. “There are brilliant people of no faith who will do this work as well as I can,” he says. For those who come after him, he says, “It’s not necessarily a problem not to be a religion scholar.” 

The space where Casey does sit is working well for him. He enjoys a large office with a windowed view down to the Washington Mall. More importantly, a mere walk down a windowless corridor, past the Office of the Director of Policy and Planning, lands him at the Office of the Secretary of State. It’s a long way to have come from the cotton farming country on the edge of the Ozarks where Casey was raised, in the boot heel of Southeast Missouri.

Casey stresses his plan to follow the mandate outlined by Kerry. “I have Very. Good. Access,” he says, emphasizing every word, “to both the Secretary and the Chief of Staff. I couldn’t ask for anything better. He gave me as robust a mandate as anyone could have received. I was struck 7 years ago by Secretary Kerry’s appreciation that religion is a powerful force in international politics.”

What Casey can offer is a carefully mapped network of who’s who in religion and politics, and a personally strong network among the faith leaders, journalists, and intellectuals who shape opinions around religion and politics. His credibility in this network is already in demand to support Secretary Kerry’s peace building efforts in the Middle East. Casey has been tasked particularly with building support among Christian leaders not only for the peace process underway, but for accepting the political costs and compromises that will inevitably follow.

In this public role, Casey’s own scholarly expertise—what he calls “the public implications of private life”—remains in the background of his work. Yet what excites him most about the job seems to be filling out the language and logic of the ethics of Secretary Kerry’s agenda. “There’s a tremendous hunger here,” he says. “People who join the Foreign Service want to fight poverty, human rights, mitigate conflict.” People who work in these sectors are morally driven, he suggests. As for whether he can function and thrive in this shark tank of an institution, he smiles and shrugs. “I’ve heard all those stories too,” he says. “I don’t think I’m naïve.”

Casey’s attention returns again to Kerry’s speech on Syria, and the ways in which its agenda is to make a moral argument. The speech lingered not only on what America must do for Syrians under attack by their sovereign, but also on what Americans should do for the sake of our own moral life. Given the weight of such decisions, Kerry might do well to keep an ethicist on staff.

“I dog whistled Niebuhr in my talk,” Casey says of his installation ceremony. Casey is finishing a book on Niebuhr and thinking particularly of The Irony of American History. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. government struggled with how the world had changed. Casey points out Niebuhr’s warning to Americans, in the wake of the country’s emergence as a superpower, that “there’s the danger that we might have an overinflated sense of our own virtue.” Yet he said, there’s “also a risk of Americans being overly fearful of entanglements, of disengagement from world affairs.” Casey concludes that Niebuhr would approve of this office if only because it’s not armed with any view of perfect moral mission that America has been granted by God. “But as Secretary Kerry says, we ignore religion at our peril,” Casey defers. “If we’re going to make progress on human rights, poverty, conflict, then we have to engage the religious communities who cut across those sectors. To the extent that I can marginally contribute—that’s what I’m going to do here. It’s a very Niehburian vision. It’s not time to fall back on false pieties, nor to become isolationist, but to directly engage a very complicated world.” 

Mara Willard is a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.

*The article originally misstated the city where Casey served as a pastor as Jacksonville, Florida. The post has been updated to reflect that he worked in Jackson, Mississippi.