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Obama’s Faith-Based Diplomacy

Obama’s Faith-Based Diplomacy

by Bill Berkowitz
15 August 2013

From its counterinsurgency strategy to Drone strikes, from paying off tribal leaders to training local security forces, from increasing troops to decreasing troops, the Obama Administration has tried almost every conceivable strategy to "successfully" end the war in Afghanistan. Will the State Department's newly created faith-based office help turn the tide in Afghanistan and in other areas of violent conflict? Will it promote religious freedom for all, including minority religious groups? Will it treat non-believers with respect? Will it become a politicized money-pit for a chosen few religious organizations and institutions?

In its introduction to a wide-ranging discussion titled "Engaging religion at the Department of State," The Editors of the blog The Immanent Frame pointed out that while "There is great excitement in some quarters about the prospects for new partnerships .... this initiative also raises concerns regarding the intersection of religious freedom, religious establishment, and foreign policy."

Results from faith-based initiatives remain difficult to measure

During the opening days of the Bush Administration, the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Organizations and Centers for FaithBased and Community Initiatives was established with great fanfare. Faith based offices were set up at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Education, and Housing and Urban Development, and later, six more agencies established centers, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Agency for International Development, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Small Business Administration.

During Bush's reign, his faith-based initiative, which was at the heart of his "compassionate conservatism" domestic agenda, delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to faith-based organizations, politicized agencies through the leadership of ideologically-driven officials, saw directors of the Office come and go, and was generally dogged by controversy. In his 2006 book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, the late David Kuo revealed how the Bush Administration totally politicized the Faith-Based Initiative.

One question Team Bush kept avoiding was: Did faith-based organizations deliver services more effectively and efficiently than government agencies?

Obama's State Dept. opens faith-based office

Now, in a move once again reminiscent of the Bush Administration, the U.S. State Department recently named Dr. Shaun Casey to head up its new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives within the State Department. In making the announcement, Secretary of State John Kerry told State Department workers: "I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together."

Casey, a professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary and an expert on religion and politics, supported then-candidate Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008.

Apparently Kerry and Casey have had several conversations about religion and politics since they met in 2005. Speaking after Kerry, Casey said: "I remember thinking at the time how unusual it was for a public figure [Kerry] to see the potential in and the power of religious groups tackling extreme poverty, convincing people to combat global climate change, fighting for global human rights, mitigating conflict and building peace, even at a time when others focused on those religious folk who committed acts of violent extremism, perversely claiming justice in the name of their own faith. From that day forward, I admired your willingness to defy the conventional wisdom that dictated religion was a purely private, personal choice, and thus communities bounded by faith must be entirely left outside of discussions of policy. That is why, today, engaging these communities in the context of policy has always struck me as being a matter of very great and deep importance."

The Obama Administration's White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is currently headed up by Melissa Rogers. Before Rogers took over the office earlier this year from Joshua DuBois, she was the director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School and a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

The Christian Post reported that "The new office, Rogers added, will have three primary objectives: promote sustainable development, advance pluralism, human rights, and religious freedom, and address violent conflicts."

"We have seen the power of religion throughout human history," she said. "In our own country, for example, we've seen religious leaders join with others in championing causes like abolition, civil rights, and the eradication of poverty. In so doing, these advocates have often led our nation to heed the better angels of its nature.

"Similarly, around the world, on issues ranging from health to education to conflict prevention, religious and other civil society leaders are tackling some of our most pressing challenges. They help create more peaceful and secure communities. Of course, as we know all too well, there are also times when religion is abused to promote violence and destabilize communities."

Dialogue with religious groups from around the world is not entirely new to the State Department. Religion and Politics' Amy Frykholm reported in early May that "In the 1990s, the State Department created the Office for International Religious Freedom after Congress passed a law requiring an annual report on the status of persecuted minority religious groups around the world. But highlighting those human rights abuses is not the same thing as engaging religious entities."

Frykholm pointed out that "in 2009, Judd Birdsall, who at the time worked on the Secretary of State's policy staff, started hosting a discussion group at the State Department called the Forum on Religion and Global Affairs. Birdsall said: "If you were a strict church-state separationist and thought we should only work with secular groups, there would be large swaths of the earth that you just couldn't engage at all ... If you don't engage with those groups, the Taliban certainly will."

After a survey found that engagement with religious groups was "sporadic, ceremonial, and all too often ad hoc," the opening of the faith-based office in the State Department was just around the corner. Chris Seiple, the president of the Institute for Global Engagement a think tank that studies and actively promotes sustainable religious freedom worldwide, said this is the first time that the State Department is "intentionally and comprehensively seeking to institutionalize its engagement of religious actors worldwide."

Questions abound

While acknowledging that he wasn't certain why the Obama Administration would choose to open the faith-based office at this time, Rob Boston, Director of Communications for Americans United, told me in an email that he had "two concerns" about the new faith-based office: "One is that while the United State operates under the separation of church and state, this policy is often not well understood by leaders, scholars and activists in other nations.

"The State Department often asks me to host delegations from predominantly Muslim countries and explain our system of religious freedom. I'm happy to do this and have learned a lot from these exchanges. One thing I've noticed is that many Muslims assume that even though America has a policy of church-state separation, our default position must still be Christianity. When they hear that most Americans are Christians, they conclude that the government must then want to further Christianity – and they don't always know about the scope of Christian thought in America.

"This means the State Department will have to extra careful not to create the impression that this office is interested in evangelism or perpetuating a Christian order. Secretary Kerry's decision to include a reading from the Book of Mark during the announcement means we're off to a shaky start."

Boston also noted that "an office like this needs to stop viewing the global faith experience through the lens of the three Abrahamic religions. The third-largest 'religion' in the world is 'no preference.' This is too large a slice of the world's population to ignore. Yet what does a 'faith-based' initiative offer these people? The domestic version of the faith-based initiative was predicated on the assumption that religion can solve a range of social ills, if only it gets a little government help. In fact, religion is an inherently divisive force for many people, and government's attempts to harness it as a force for the public good raise a host of sticky questions. These are real difficulties that can't be papered over. It would be a shame to project them onto the international stage."

Will the new faith-based office help the Obama Administration score points within the conservative religious community?

As Jaweed Kaleem pointed out in the Huffington Post in mid-March, the Obama administration "has been both hailed and hammered for its relationship to religious groups." Religious Right groups have been uniformly opposed to every Obama initiative, often accusing him of being anti-religion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "sued the White House over the requirement in Obamacare that employers provide coverage for birth control and the morning-after pill in their insurance policies. The lawsuits and complaints have continued despite two revisions by the administration, attempts to take the burden of paying for birth control-related coverage away from religious employers."

While Obama's Faith-Based office "expanded" it operations "to support broader cultural issues such as responsible fatherhood, reducing unintended pregnancies and promoting interfaith cooperation," it has also kept intact the controversial initiative that allows religious organizations to discriminate in their hiring practices.

In June 2013 , Thomas F. Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the first Director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, raised questions regarding the implementation of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in an appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security.

In analyzing the results from IRFA work, Farr said: "it would be difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way."

"In fact," he added "in most of the countries where the United States has in recent years poured blood, treasure, and diplomatic resources (such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia), levels of religious freedom are declining and religious persecution is rising."

In this world -- increasingly balkanized by religious intolerance -- will the current State Department initiative fare any better?


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