Office for the Cultivation of "Beautiful Flowers from the Same Garden: A Reflection on the State Department's Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

Cara Burnidge

Today's post is a revised crosspost that was originally posted to Cara's blog earlier this month.

This month two important professional events occurred: first, I graduated (thanks to everyone who flew/drove to Tallahassee to help celebrate) and second, the State Department announced a new office devoted to "faith-based organizations and religious institutions." According to the Department, the creation of this office was motivated in part by religious persecution around the world, the presence of violence (curiously disassociated with "religion"--a telling rhetorical move noted below), and the desire to spread religious freedom and expand interfaith dialogue.

As Secretary of State John Kerry explained in his remarks earlier this month, the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives stems from a working group on religion and foreign policy. Dr. Shaun Casey, Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary and leader of the working group will head the new office. Secretary Kerry has remarked that Casey is "perfect" for the job and Michael Kessler, Associate Director of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs told the Washington Post that Casey "brings a lot of gravitas to the position" because he "has an extensive religious network that he will be able to leverage." [I hope "leverage" rings in your ears for a moment.] While this may seem as a surprise to some, the creation of this office is a predictable step by the State Department, which has been openly rethinking religion and its place in international affairs for some time now. [Yes, I'm being vague about the timeline on purpose.]

As one can imagine, religion scholars are weighing in, especially after Secretary Kerry admitted that if he could go to college again he would major in comparative religions. Before we put a "W" in the Humanities column, someone should inform Kerry that the academic study of religions is not akin to Gandhi's assessment of the world's religions being "beautiful flowers from the same garden" or Reza Aslan's view that all religions are "saying the exact same things, often in exactly the same way" because they draw from the same source. Michael Altman gave it a try, disabusing his readers of this notion by noting that three major assertions of his religion class reveal the shortcomings of this office and the troubling aspects of its creation. What Altman's students will soon learn, The Immanent Frame has provided to the general public in an engaging roundtable discussion with 17 scholars offering their own insights to the creation of this office. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd challenges the assumption that the US government can "take religion seriously" at all due to its own history and the theoretical assumptions made in the formation of the office alone. Helge Arsheim, Pasquale Annicchino, and Maia Hallward, among others, point to the problematic nature of the State Department establishing an office dedicated to advancing religious freedom; Winnifred Sullivan, however, persuasively argues that the creation of this office is not in violation of any legal precedence. And, Melani McAlister rightly notes that the policy advanced mirrors a particular--and not universal--understanding of religion in the public sphere. ...which leads some, including Austin Dacy at Religion Dispatches, to ask "Why is the State Department Opening an Office of 'Religious Engagement'"?

While others are discussing the new and different aspects of this office--as well as its uncritical approach to "religion" [all worthy topics in need of discussion]--I find myself reflecting on the century-long continuities within the federal government's approach to religion and foreign policy. I've started a brief list below, but feel free to add to or challenge the list in the comments. [Quotes can be found in the transcript of Kerry's Remarks linked above] 

1. "Religion" as primarily an institutional affiliation: While the emphasis on "communities" implies more "on the ground" engagement, it seems likely that the State Department will work with "traditional" brick-and-mortar institutions and, primarily, Abrahamic traditions. More importantly, the State Department will likely see only what it is looking for. Rather than stay attuned to the ways in which the naming and claiming of "religion" creates and sustains power dynamics among [imagined] communities and nations, the State Department, it seems, will marshal resources to specific faith-communities/affiliations.
"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. You will have the support of this Department in doing so, and you will have great leadership in my friend, Dr. Shaun Casey, who is going to lead the change to integrate our engagement with faith communities with our diplomacy and with our development work."
 2. Religion as [exclusively] synonymous with "morality" or "virtue": The operating assumption of this office and the State Department generally is that all religions are "good" and exist to promote the "common good" [what that is we somehow intuitively know as a result of human nature].
"All of these faiths are virtuous and they are in fact, most of them, tied together by the golden rule, as well as fundamental concerns about the human condition, about poverty, about relationships between people, our responsibilities each to each other. And they all come from the same human heart."
3. This assumption about the virtuousness of all faiths contributes to the trend of the State Department identifying "true" religion or "real" religion (i.e. "good" religions") from "bad" religions or "false" religions, and therefore participating in the active classification of theological truth. Note, for example, the way in which Kerry dismisses the possibility of violence performed in the name of religion (its own kind of rhetorical and authoritative maneuver), in this case with Islam:
"our religious leaders who work to heal, we learn a great deal, which stands in stark contrast to violent extremists who seek to destroy and never talk about building a school or a community, or providing health care or succor to anybody" ["violent extremists" are not and cannot be themselves "religious" leaders, because some form of legitimacy would be gained]
 "And I have talked at length with people like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or even King Abdullah, Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and others who are engaged in interfaith efforts, all of whom recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence." [Note how faith can be "hijacked" and when that hijacking occurs it is based on an "interpretation" and not "facts."]
4. Identification of America as religiously plural yet primarily evangelical and, somehow has a result, distinct from "the Muslim World."
"I had the privilege of giving an address at Yale University an number of years ago to a gathering of evangelicals from around America and imams, muftis, ayatollahs, clerics from the Muslim world--an improbably gathering you might think at first blush. And for three days people worked and struggled with the effort to find the common ground." [Note also the notion that there is such a thing as "common ground" and it exists in the singular "the common ground."] 
5. Religion as based on a particular Protestant normativity (white, elite, and liberal in its theology) that bases its Christianity on an ethic of service for the greater good, presumes this ethic to be universal, and considers all other beliefs/identifications as not truly religious if it/they disagrees with this ethic or its theological basis.
"what we are doing is guided by the conviction that we have to find ways to translate our faith into efforts that unify for the greater good. That can be done without crossing any lines whatsoever. One of my favorite passages from the Scripture sums up what Shaun and I think this effort is really all about. It's a familiar Gospel of Mark in which Jesus says to his disciples, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many."
"I'm convinced that all of you will agree that one of the toughest challenges that we face in terms of global diplomacy and relationships around the world between peoples nowadays, from sectarian strife to the challenges of many intractable, frozen conflicts, to the challenges of simply understanding people--one people to another--or even monumental challenges like the sectarian strife that we see tearing countries and regions apart, as well as the enormous challenges of things like global climate change, which really is a challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians--safe guarders of God's creation."
It is that final fragment (emphasis added) that reflects the role of religion in US foreign policy in the long twentieth century. As astute consumers of information, we all see the connections to 9-11 and the US government's heightened awareness of Al-Queda and sectarian violence [particularly in the ways in which this office seems to separate religion from those iterations of it]; but the operating assumption of the US as a guardian of "God's creation" has a longer history, one that I see as clearly connected to President Wilson, the internationalism he espoused, and internationalism that bears his legacy. For example, when he sought to pledge the nation's resources to illustrate how America was the "champion of mankind," he did so on the basis of America's ability to influence other nations, to mold global perceptions in the image of America.
“America may make peaceful conquest of the world. And I say that will all the greater confidence, gentlemen, because, I believe, and hope that the belief does not spring merely from the hope, that, when the present great conflict in Europe is over, the world is going to wear a different aspect. …I believe that the spirit which as hitherto reigned in the hearts of Americans, and in like people everywhere in the world, will assert itself once for all in international affairs, and that, if America preserves her poise, preserves her self-possession, preserves her attitude of friendliness towards all the world, she may have the privilege, whether in one form or another, of being the mediating influence by which these things may be induced.
I am not now speaking of governmental mediation. I have not that in mind at all. I mean spiritual mediation. I mean the recognition of the world that here is a country that has always wanted things done that way, and whose merchants, when they carry their goods, will carry their ideas along with them, and that this spirit of give and take, this spirit of success only by having better goods and better brains and better training will, through their influence, spread the more rapidly to the ends of the world.” [1]
 The ways in which Wilson attempted to shape international opinion based on his own particular (and, at times peculiar) religious views were evident in the challenges he received from all sides, despite his claims to pursing "universal brotherhood." It was also an endeavor in shaping the way in which Americans conceived of their own role in the world. Likewise, and as Melani McAlister astutely pointed out in her most recent Religion Dispatches post, the State Department will reveal more and more its own particular and peculiar understanding of religion and the United States as it begins to articulate its purpose with this office and, then, act on it "throwing US power and money behind some groups and not others" nearly 100 years after Wilson.

[1] Luncheon Address to the Chamber of Commerce of Columbus Ohio, 10 Dec 1915, Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 35:327.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Very helpful summary and reflections here, Cara, and CONGRATS on your graduation!

As far as historical precedents for Kerry's new office, Harry Truman's imagined interfaith front against communism is a big turning point (Wilson's Presbyterianism kept getting in the way of a post-Protestant effort like Truman's). Truman not only tried to reconcile American Jewish leaders, the Vatican, and the World Council of Churches, but he also expected that Hindus and Muslims would side with him. Truman's front has been covered quite well by Dianne Kirby (see here edited collection, Religion and the Cold War), by William Inboden in The Soul of Containment, and by Andrew Preston in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith.
Tom Van Dyke said…
2. Religion as [exclusively] synonymous with "morality" or "virtue": The operating assumption of this office and the State Department generally is that all religions are "good" and exist to promote the "common good" [what that is we somehow intuitively know as a result of human nature].

The use of "exclusively" strikes me as an unnecessary bone in the throat.

It would be quite a threat to post-19th century currents of Supreme Court jurisprudence if "religion" were seen as self-evidently contributing to the common good*, placing Justice Berger's creation of the "Lemon Test" in Lemon v. Kurtzmann

Three ... tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

into renewed question. Of Berger's 3rd prong of the Lemon Test, there is little controversy. However, if "religion" is good for the republic, then "neutrality" between religion and irreligion is not quite what the First Amendment was after, accommodation of all religions was.

IOW, they believed that "religion" indeed served a "secular" purpose.
*GWash, Farewell Address

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Cara Burnidge said…
Thanks, Mark!

In my work I actually challenge the narrative you're pointing to above. While Wilson certainly was a Presbyterian and his faith influenced him, his *particular* Presbyterianism is often misunderstood. There is evidence that his administration, with his leadership not counter to it, sought to cultivate the kind of relationships you refer to as "post-Protestant." Changes to the chaplaincy and efforts to quell anti-Catholicism (despite his own latent anti-Catholicism) are two examples. Josephus Daniels, Joseph Tumulty, and NCCJ co-chair Newton Baker are three former Wilson administration insiders who work diligently in this regard through the interwar period. Connecting Eisenhower and Truman's efforts to this longer narrative, I think, helps to explain how the "post-Protestant" character is often a veneer.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for the reply, Cara. I'm looking forward to your book all the more now!

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