Washington — Faith-based communities will have a greater voice in the U.S. foreign policy process, thanks to the State Department’s new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.
At an August 7 event announcing the new office, Secretary of State John Kerry said the mission of the office will be “to engage more closely with faith communities around the world with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges.”
“We need to recognize,” Kerry said, “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.”
Recognizing that in some instances religion has been “hijacked” by people who interpret faith in ways that lead to conflict, Kerry said the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives will “grow our ability to be able to reach out to more communities and to create greater understanding between peoples and countries.”
There is “common ground” between the Abrahamic faiths, Kerry said, “and all religions and philosophies, whether you’re talking about Hindu or Confucianism or any other of the many of the world’s different approaches to our existence here on the planet and to our relationship with a supreme being.”
The Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives will be directed by Shaun Casey, an activist and scholar on religion and politics, who is taking a leave of absence from the Wesley Theological Seminary where he is a professor of Christian ethics. Based in Washington, Wesley Theological Seminary advances theological scholarship among more than 1,000 students each year. The students represent more than 30 denominations, and graduates go on to ministries across the United States as well as in 20 countries.
At the August 7 event, Casey said his office will be collaborating closely with State Department Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman and Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith, as well as Melissa Rogers, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The intent of the new State Department office, Casey said, “is not to design and create a new silo that addresses religion in an isolated manner; rather we are seeking to multiply the engagement with religion that already exists across the bureaus and offices of this great organization.”
“We seek to be accessible and transparent in our engagements,” Casey said. “This means, among other things, that we have much to learn from our partners across the globe. Our engagement has to be a two-way or sometimes multiway dialogue that builds trust so that we can build — make progress towards our mutual goals.”
In her remarks, Rogers said the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives will have three critical objectives: promoting sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response; advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom; and preventing, mitigating and resolving violent conflict to enhance local and regional stability and security.
Kerry, Casey and Rogers all emphasized that the increased efforts of the Obama administration to engage with faith-based communities in no way breaches the U.S. Constitution’s separation between church and state.
“A guiding principle for all this work,” Rogers said, “will be that our actions must be consistent with the United States Constitution. Employees of our government can and should engage faith-based leaders and communities on U.S. policy priorities, just as they do other civil society leaders and communities.
“At the same time, our precious religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment mean that we must observe some special rules when we engage religious actors and matters, such as ensuring governmental neutrality toward faith. All diplomatic and consular posts will receive guidance and continuing assistance on these important issues.”
Learn more about the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom and the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.