The Future of Religion in American Diplomacy

By Shaun Casey | January 24, 2023

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) listens as Shaun Casey delivers at the State Department in 2013. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

To be invited by the secretary of state to launch a new office on religion and global affairs, and then to be able to lead that office for almost four years, was the opportunity of a lifetime. It is impossible to fully convey the challenges and joys of that task. The team we built, the places we went, and the people we engaged along the way were truly remarkable. And to be able to do that against the background of an increasingly unstable international order made the work all the more important and interesting. Religions are powerful forces in global diplomacy, and the United States has paid a high price for its reticence, ineptitude, and unsophisticated dealings with religions throughout its history. We began to model a different approach to religion based on Secretary John Kerry’s realization that we would continue to pay a high price for mistakes and missed diplomatic opportunities without a better capacity to interpret religion. As I write these words, the future of the work we did in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs is unknown. I believe that without such an institutional capacity, the U.S. government will not be able to help the world answer major global issues such as forced mass migration, burgeoning climate change, the effort to inoculate the planet against COVID, and the securing of full human rights for women and girls, to name a few issues where religious communities are simultaneously part of the problem and part of the solution. If the human race is to meet these and other challenges successfully, the energy, wealth, and collaboration of religious communities are essential.

I began to think about writing my latest book, Chasing the Devil at Foggy Bottom: The Future of Religion in American Diplomacy, almost from the moment Donald Trump won the election in 2016. In the weeks leading up to the election, I had a very good feeling about what we had accomplished. In September 2016 we put on a conference on religion and diplomacy, which we called RadCon, to great fanfare with hundreds of our partners and supporters from around the world. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough gave the keynote address, and we accomplished our goal of reminding friends and a few foes of what we had accomplished in our short life. We helped advance U.S. strategic priorities in dozens of countries, on issues related to sustainable development, mitigating conflict, and promoting a roster of human rights, to name only a few issues. We built an analytical power to help our diplomats assess religious dynamics, we engaged thousands of religious actors, we brought deeper scholarship to bear on U.S. policy, and we built a global network of thousands of partners. The conference was a time for us to remind people what we had done and to celebrate our success.

I was exhausted, and I had decided to go back to academia. I had even managed to secure an informal commitment from a senior Clinton presidential transition official to let me name my successor as special representative for religion and global affairs. I was feeling pretty good about what we had done. I would choose someone who knew the history of our office; possessed the necessary skills, energy, and brains; and would help solidify our office’s future as a permanent part of U.S. diplomacy. I kept an anxious eye on Hillary Clinton’s sliding poll numbers over the course of the summer and fall, but I had faith she would win. Obviously, I am not as smart as I thought I was.

I had always made two assumptions about the durability of Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA). First, it would take at least two consecutive presidential terms for the office to become a permanent feature of American diplomacy. Change does not come quickly to the State Department, and I knew it would take time to win a sufficient number of hearts and minds of the career staff. And second, if the work were to be truly successful, we would eventually put ourselves out of work. By that I mean, if we were persuasive, the missions we promoted would be woven into the standard diplomatic DNA, and there would no longer be a need for a single office dedicated to keep the secretary apprised of the religious dynamics in American diplomacy, to train embassies to understand and engage the religious landscapes of their host countries, and to provide a point of entry for interested parties so they would have routine access to the offices and bureaus at State that dealt with their issues.

With the advent of the Trump administration, all of that vision was destroyed. I went to bed in the wee hours of the morning as election day bled into the next day. But as I struggled to go to sleep, I knew all we had done was soon to go up in flames. The book idea was the best way of resisting what the new administration was going to do that I could think of. In short order the new regime at State closed our office, eliminated the position of special representative for religion and global affairs, and set up a small group of four or five staffers to attempt to replicate our mission within the Office on International Religious Freedom. But that was all window dressing. Our mission was defunct.

Six years later, there are three questions left for me to answer. First, just who or what do I mean by the “devil” in the title of my book? Second, what are the current prospects for restarting S/RGA by the Biden administration? And finally, what should a renewed S/RGA look like, based on what I learned from its first incarnation?

What about the devil? When I mentioned my working title to a friend, he immediately asked me which undersecretary I was calling the devil. I demurred and did not take the bait. At the risk of disappointing many of my readers, let me clarify now, I am not referring to any particular person or persons as the devil. I am, however, pointing to a collection of malign global forces that were apparent during my time at the State Department and, in most cases, are still at work around the planet. Satan is the English transliteration of a term in the Hebrew Bible whose literal meaning is “adversary.” So I am taking the devil to be a symbol of those malign and oppositional forces I saw at work around the world. And their number was large, and not all of those forces were external to the United States. And to be clear, those malign forces posed a vast array of threats to our work, from the existential to the level of minor irritant and also to the work of others in the State Department. I am not equating, for instance, the evil wrought by ISIL with the minor headaches leaders of right-wing Christian religious freedom advocates caused for the work of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. If the metaphor of “the devil” offends, I’m sorry. But as a symbol of the collective range and magnitude of malign forces we faced, I think it is apt.

I think historians will look back on the Obama presidency as a time of real global peril. Let’s start with the truly evil. I was often asked if we saved any lives directly. That question always irritated me a little. I don’t believe the major criterion for evaluating our work should be based on how many burning buildings we ran into. For the most part, that represents a gross misunderstanding of what diplomacy actually entails, especially for a Washington-based office. It is true that two of our staff members were deeply involved in rescuing a small set of families of a minority religion from a life-threatening situation and relocating them to a safer, more hospitable environment. Likewise, I was brought in to consult on a hostage case that ultimately failed, and I will carry the memory of that failure with me until I die. We made marginal contributions to the effort to relocate Guantanamo Bay detainees, one of the many moral stains left by the George W. Bush administration. And that pretty much exhausts any work we did that might have been close to headline status.

There were, however, many global hot spots where we made routine diplomatic contributions to government-wide efforts to push back on efforts that had significant negative moral implications. When I look back at these years, I see the expansion of autocratic nationalist leaders and their fruit. Putin, Xi Jinping, Modi, ISIL, even Aung San Suu Kyi will all be remembered for their atrocities. And in each case, religion was a significant vector, and we made contributions on the policy side resisting their evil. I was particularly proud of the work we did supporting Secretary Kerry in the policy process of declaring that ISIL was guilty of genocide against multiple religious communities in Iraq.

We also encountered domestic adversaries: the religious freedom folk who saw our work as threatening their exclusive hegemony in the religion and diplomacy space; some leaders in the countering violent extremism sector who tried to enlist us in their work to create “moderate” Muslims; Republican politicians who advanced bad-faith arguments about refugees, immigrants, and the administration’s policy change in Cuba; and the occasional religious leader who put personal success over political success in some contexts. It is a chaotic world, and confronting adversaries, whether in the form of international bad actors, evil global movements that compound human suffering, or human-induced climate change, will always be a part of American diplomacy. Against this background, the work of persuading religious communities to work together on issues of mutual concern with U.S. foreign policy goals was never boring, always challenging, and, for the most part, pathbreaking work.

Just what is the future of the analysis of religion for U.S. diplomacy? The story might be over, or it might reappear to build on the sophistication we brought to the space. My conversations with members of the Biden administration to this point in time have been decidedly mixed. At the point of this writing, the answer for the moment is “not now.” Given the radical staffing cuts of State Department staff by the Trump administration, and given the obstruction of confirming appointees by insurrection-supporting Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and the diplomatic wildfires erupting around the planet, it is not surprising Secretary Tony Blinken’s senior staff have not had the bandwidth to assess the question. It is disappointing but understandable. My fear is that some of the historical reticence of liberal Democrats to sufficiently grasp my arguments on why this work is important may feed the bureaucratic inertia against embracing the value of the sort of work we did. I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of reticence combined with inertia, to say nothing of fear. But I remain hopeful that will change, and at some point the Office of Religion and Global Affairs will be restarted.

What would a refashioned S/RGA ideally look like? I believe our original threefold mission of advising the secretary, equipping posts to assess religious dynamics and engage religious actors, and being the public connection point for external partners still holds up. If a new office reappears, it will be the second mission, equipping more posts to do this important work, that will need the most additional attention. America’s diplomatic footprint has never been fainter in my lifetime as a result of the great purge during the Trump administration. Personnel at all levels is depleted. Expertise in religion is virtually nonexistent, and senior leaders are confronting a global to-do list that would be intimidating in any time period and even with a fully staffed department. Without an analogue office to S/RGA, opportunities will be missed, bad policies are more likely, and a generation of willing partners to help advance U.S. interests will be turned away. None of these outcomes are foreordained, and all of them can be avoided.

One of the dynamics we began to see in the Obama era, the rise of global right-wing populism and nationalism, is only spreading and becoming more intense, in the United States and around the planet. The impact of religious dynamics plays out differently in almost every national context. But religion is a constant vector. At a minimum, there always seems to be targeted religious minorities, as well as majority religions that are co-opted by the authoritarian governments to the benefit of the authoritarian leaders. My suspicion is that U.S. efforts to push back against these forces will mirror its earlier work on countering violent extremism in that it will approach the religious dynamics of these various movements primarily from a security perspective and not one of direct diplomatic engagement based on contextual historical understanding. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, and the Pentagon do not have a capacity to analyze the religious dynamics of these movements, and they probably never will. At the moment, the State Department doesn’t have such a capacity either. If there is a new advisory office on global religion, it will have to have a greater analytical capacity than we had in my day on how to counter the flood of right-wing religion-fueled populism.

There is language coming out of the State Department to the effect of renewing a commitment to expand engagement with civil society organizations and universities. I believe our work to expand and strengthen public engagement made a huge contribution to the overall public diplomacy of the department in the Kerry era. What we did with very limited resources in the Kerry era would be a good place to look for great ideas in how to do this work. I believe there is even greater demand today across the globe from religious communities, religion scholars, media, and religiously affiliated NGOs to engage U.S. diplomacy than there was during the Kerry years. Expanding relationships with those networks will increase the influence and effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy.

And the one area that needs a complete overhaul would be the integration of knowledge and expertise on religion throughout the executive branch. A strong research capacity on religion, once housed in the intelligence community, was shuttered by the Trump administration. While the National Security Council under Biden has restarted the Global Engagement Directorate, there is no longer an Interagency Policy Council on religion, which in the Obama era included S/RGA, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and USAID. As a consequence, any relevant work within the wider executive branch, shrunken though it may be, no longer has an information pipeline through which to communicate routinely to the White House. Right now, the Biden administration has a degraded capacity to understand religion and is without a mechanism to share the benefits if the old capacity is restored.

I am by nature both hopeful and realistic. The realistic side of me fears the State Department will go back to its ill-educated reticence with respect to religion. The hopeful side of me believes we made a compelling case in our short tenure and that our narrative will eventually be recovered. Only time will tell what the future of a better understanding of religion in U.S. diplomacy will be. But at this moment, the capacity of our diplomacy to understand religious dynamics is near to that which prevailed at the beginning of our forever wars at the beginning of the millennium. To be sure, the foreign policy leaders of the current administration do not harbor the grandiose illusions the Bush administration did and their thirst for war. But the ability to understand the complex dynamics of religion now is virtually nonexistent in the current administration, and that is a troubling prospect against the background of our increasingly unruly world.

Shaun Casey was special representative for religion and global affairs at the U.S. Department of State and director of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs from 2013 to 2017. He has taught at Harvard Divinity School, Wesley Theological Seminary, and the Walsh School of Foreign Service and directed the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Adapted from Chasing the Devil at Foggy Bottom: The Future of Religion in American Diplomacy by Shaun A. Casey ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. 

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