Taking Religious Engagement in Foreign Policy Seriously

As the U.S. State Department prepares to stand up a new office of religious engagement, the working group on faith-based leaders in diplomacy at the upcoming 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum will provide an opportunity to reflect on how Washington has dealt with this issue to date and what a new approach might offer. The new office, authorized just as Hillary Clinton was leaving office, represents the culmination of years of work by several State Department officials. They often faced an uphill battle, finding it difficult to convince their colleagues and principals that U.S. foreign policy needed to take religious engagement seriously. To be sure, the basic idea is not a new one. Already in 1995, Doug Johnston had identified religion as the missing dimension of statecraft in a book of the same name. By the 2000s, the promotion of international religious freedom had become a focal point of U.S. foreign policy, but direct engagement with religious actors remained elusive.

Under the Obama administration the situation gradually began to change. The White House and State Department both began to talk about integrating a greater focus on religion and religious actors into their foreign policy efforts. In the aftermath of Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech, the administration rolled out a set of activities focused on engaging global Muslim communities albeit with mixed results. More interesting and promising were initiatives to build elements of religious engagement training into the coursework taken by outgoing diplomats at the Foreign Services Institute. Within the State Department an informal cadre of like-minded junior and mid-level officials known as the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group became internal champions of the religious engagement agenda. Their efforts paid off when in 2011 Secretary Clinton decided to establish religion and foreign policy as one of the focus areas for her Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society.

Despite the formidable energy around religion and foreign policy in recent years, the agenda has continued to struggle for a variety of reasons. Because much of the effort seemed to come out of, or be driven by staff associated with, the State Department’s Office for International Religious Freedom, target audiences sometimes found themselves confused between the advocacy of international religious freedom as a value and the much broader concept of integrating greater attention to religious issues and actors across the full range of State Department activity. In short, it became tough for religious engagement to transcend the confines of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and find advocates within front line regional bureaus.

Another problem centered on how religious engagement was conceived of and put into practice when it did manage to work its way into diplomatic conduct. All too often in my experience many of the mistakes that characterize efforts focused on engaging women in foreign policy and development work carried over into the conceptualization of religious engagement. More specifically, it seemed that outreach to religious actors—like many efforts to work with women—were approached as a “ghettoized” ancillary activity set apart from the main action. Meeting with religious actors in this fashion, however, simply reproduced the idea of religion as a marginal space rather than a domain that is central to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.

A second concern relates to the question of where and when religious engagement is seen to be relevant. It is not uncommon to find religious actors showing up on the radar of U.S. outreach in the context of efforts to address some of the more extreme situations our diplomats face—such as efforts to end conflict or respond to humanitarian disasters. While religious leaders undoubtedly have a key role to play in these tough spots, we also need to realize that they are relevant even when things aren’t burning. Which brings us to the crux of the case for religious engagement as an integral component of advancing U.S. national security and foreign policy interests: as important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads, outreach to religious actors and institutions needs to become a routinized part of U.S. diplomacy across all regional and functional domains. Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world, a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.

Of course there will be ongoing challenges that need to be tackled. One of the toughest is the legal limit imposed by the constitution on direct U.S. government support for religion. Such restrictions have in the past made some diplomats wary of being too forward leaning in the religious engagement space for fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Here it is crucial that our front line diplomats and development workers receive clear legal guidance that can enable religious engagement in the course of advancing their mission and our interests while still respecting the Establishment Clause.

The State Department’s new religious engagement office hence has the potential to be genuinely transformational with respect to how the United States does diplomacy. There are already successes that it can build on, such as USAID’s Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives or some of the frontline engagement efforts undertaken by Rashad Hussain, U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—who will be attending this year’s U.S. Islamic World Forum. The relevance of religion in global affairs has never been more apparent, and it is high time that U.S. foreign policy and national security efforts begin to reflect this reality.