How the State Department Has Sidelined Religion’s Role in Diplomacy

September 5, 2017

Religion & Politics, September 5, 2017

In early 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry asked me to join the State Department and launch a new initiative, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Over the course of almost four years, we built a staff of 30 charged with the mission of advising the secretary when religion cut across his portfolio, engaging religious actors, assessing religious dynamics globally, and building the capacity of State Department offices and posts to do this work. The office served as the portal for anyone who wanted to connect with the department on issues related to religion.

Secretary Kerry’s insight was that religion was widely recognized as a public, multivalent, global force, and U.S. diplomacy needed to develop a better capacity to interpret the implications of religion. As he put it, “We ignore the global impact of religion at our peril.” Figuring out how to do this better was the task he gave me. As Harvard Kennedy School’s Bryan Hehir once opined, this sort of work is like brain surgery—necessary, but fatal if not done well.

Despite our success and innovation, the office as I knew it is no more. Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote to Congress, announcing that he plans to fold what is left of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) into the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF). The RGA office budget will be stripped away; the titles of special representative for religion and global affairs, the special representative to Muslim communities, and the special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will be eliminated, and the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism will be moved to another bureau. The RGA staff slots will convey to the IRF office, which will almost double that office’s permament staff but will hardly suffice to keep the work of the RGA going. The IRF office has a narrow mandate to compile and edit an annual report on the state of religious freedom worldwide. In its almost 20 years of existence, it has a spotty performance record and has suffered from chronic weak leadership. Despite the secretary’s intention to expand the religious freedom office, I have little confidence that the vital work of the RGA will continue under its auspices.

It pains me immeasurably to say this. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into bringing this crucial capacity to the State Department. It’s work that still matters. But given the moral and political failings of the Trump administration, the mission of the RGA office will no longer be carried forward in a tenable way. I can only hope that the next administration will restart work in this arena, and be able to correct the damage done by continuing it in the present diminished iteration.

While I cannot summarize every line of work the RGA office pursued, let me give some highlights. We drew on the academic and diplomatic expertise of our staff, government partners in and outside the State Department, and academic resources around the globe to be able to understand lived religion, in geographical context. There is no such thing as religion in the abstract, no essence of religion to be isolated abstractly and then applied to the world. Religion needs to be understood in specific social, political, and historical contexts, interacting with myriad social and political dynamics. It is phenomenally complex, and policy makers are constantly tempted to follow stereotypes. Our job was to resist stereotypes and interpret religious dynamics in a manner that reflected nuance and study.

Likewise, we had a commitment to radical inclusivity, which meant we built a set of contacts and relationships with thousands of religious actors, organizations, and communities, meeting with any that wanted to meet with us, without endorsing any particular theological commitments or domestic political standing. Many of these interlocutors are now shut out of the State Department as the RGA office has withered to under five staffers in the first eight months of the administration. Now it is unclear who they will be meeting with as the State Department reorganizes. It is clear that the senior leadership at the White House and the State Department does not want to engage a broad set of religious communities, preferring instead to focus mainly on evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

We significantly expanded the department’s efforts to monitor and combat anti-Semitism through the work of the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. This expansion came in a period when anti-Semitism grew not only in raw numbers of incidents, but also in terms of such acts becoming more overtly public and more violent. The Trump administration’s delay in filling this position—after openly talking about cutting it—can only be described as reflecting a latent, if not overt, anti-Semitism. Seen in the context of the president’s reprehensible defense of the perpetrators of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this represents a dark and disturbing repudiation of a core historic U.S. diplomatic commitment.

The RGA office worked on many issues. We provided support for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, and for responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We helped with peace efforts in Cypress, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia. We supported the Paris Climate talks and enhanced U.S. refugee resettlement work. Our work entailed combating Islamophobia globally and assisting with post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. We contributed to resolving hostage situations and opposing Female Genital Mutilation. We helped build deeper relations with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. We promoted LGBTI rights in parts of the world where criminalization and rising violence were prevalent. The list could go on and on.

In its first eight months, the current administration has systematically dismantled the historic American diplomatic capacity. We no longer have a fraction of the global influence and respect we once had. It is unprecedented in the modern presidency. Secretary Tillerson remains bunkered in his seventh-floor aerie, virtually cut off from any career expertise on his payroll. There is not a functioning routine policymaking apparatus in foreign policy. Let that sink in for a moment. The White House has not had a working system of assessing global dynamics on a day-to-day basis and forming wise strategic global policy since this administration began. There are dozens of events every day around the world where missteps in diplomatic responses on the part of our government could lead to war, and this White House does not have a way to tap the vast expertise at its disposal nor does it seem to care about responding in the smartest ways and avoiding the perilous options that could lead to war.

Almost every undersecretary and assistant secretary position remains unfilled with permanent appointees. As a result, the White House receives virtually no expert analysis as our erratic president tweets foreign policy at all hours of the night, and White House staffers scramble to de-conflict the chaos as our allies and enemies search for coherent messages. Our embassies and posts overseas are unable to communicate our policies around the world because they do not have clear guidance from Washington. From the nuclear brink in North Korea, to the search for peace in the Middle East, to the global refugee crisis, we have no formal strategies. Instead we read news stories of senior administration principals disagreeing and fighting among themselves.

Currently Secretary Tillerson is conducting a strategic review of the department’s mission. His present plan includes eliminating dozens of special envoy and special representative posts, including the office I once held at the RGA. Assuming he continues to support the proposed massive cuts in personnel and budget, the State Department’s current ennui and collapse will be formalized via these cuts, thus further weakening America’s diminished role in the world. Even if this process yields a credible plan for the department, it will take more than a year for him to nominate, vet, and gain Senate approval for dozens of Senate confirmable positions. Which means the U.S. will not field a full team of diplomats until 2019 at the earliest.

We have enough data on the administration’s approach to religion to be afraid of where it is heading. In terms of personnel, policy, and the complete absence of strategy, all the indicators point in a deeply troubling direction.

At the State Department, former Sarah Palin adviser and Trump campaign staffer Pam Pryor is something of a religion traffic cop who started at the department without a formal title or portfolio. The two nominees for ambassadorial positions related to religion, the ambassador to the Vatican and the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, are Callista Gingrich (wife of Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich) and Governor Sam Brownback. Neither has academic training in religion nor diplomatic experience. The administration is clearly picking nominees related to religion based purely on political considerations and not on policy expertise.

The policy picture is even grimmer. The anti-Muslim rhetoric from the campaign has now crystalized into a rejection of the Obama administration’s strategy of engaging the Muslim world on a broad global scale, leading instead to an embrace of “defeating radical Islamic terrorists.”

Engagement with religious actors and communities has dissolved from the global, inclusive, strategy of the previous administration to an almost exclusively conservative Christian, primarily Protestant, engagement. The White House’s repudiation of diplomatic engagement with Pope Francis is striking. The Muslim ban, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement, and the rolling back of U.S. relations with Cuba, all signal a rejection of the central commitments of the Vatican’s diplomacy.

To the extent one can discern any form of strategy to govern and guide the treatment of religion, it is simply to burnish evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity both domestically and abroad. Gone are the days when the State Department had the capacity to understand lived religion in almost any part of the world. Gone is the capacity to train staff at embassies and posts around the world in how to understand and interpret religious dynamics. The vast network of contacts and relationships the State Department built are no longer tapped and consulted. Domestically, hundreds of religious communities are now shut out of the building and no longer welcome to critique, to partner, or to convey global messages.

In addition to the instrumentalization of religion in the short term, I have a long-term fear. If this administration chooses not only to dismantle the Obama strategy of integrating religious understanding into our diplomacy, but also pursues a path that rewards only conservative Christians through the State Department and other agencies, the next administration may see religion as an analytical category so poisoned and compromised as to be irredeemable. So even a progressive administration might not be able to see its way clear to replicate its own version of what we did under Secretary Kerry.

I had always thought it would take at least two presidential terms to stabilize the mission of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, and after that its leadership should come from someone in the Foreign Service, not a political appointee like me. Two terms would have demonstrated the ongoing viability of the contribution to U.S. diplomacy. After two terms, I had hoped that a career diplomat would be appointed to be the next special representative for religion and global affairs. I believed such a person might be able to resist any pressure to transform the office into a partisan shop. It would have preserved the integrity of the office mission to provide analysis and continue to engage a wide and diverse set of religious actors irrespective of their theological beliefs.

I am saddened that the U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs will no longer be a position at the State Department. It is devastating that the Office of Religion and Global Affairs will cease to exist as it once was. But given this administration’s failures, perhaps there is no palatable alternative to closing the office and waiting for a new, smarter administration to renew some version of what we accomplished under Secretary Kerry’s vision and leadership.

This op-ed was originally published in Religion & Politics.

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