A Discussion with James Patton, President, International Center for Religion and Diplomacy

With: James Patton Berkley Center Profile

July 28, 2017

Background: James Patton is a leader in the field of religion and diplomacy who brings wide-ranging experience in different world regions to the challenge. Today he is involved in numerous conflict situations as leader of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), working to bring a pragmatic and analytical focus to their religious dimensions. He recently assumed the ICRD presidency, taking the helm from its founder, Douglas Johnston, who is retiring. This discussion with Katherine Marshall in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 2017 focused on his career and life trajectory. The discussion ranged widely, as has his work. The path that brought him to his current position took him to many countries and work with wide-ranging institutions. He reflects on contemporary challenges for the peacebuilding field, including coordination among different peacebuilding ventures, the quagmire of South Sudan, and hopeful signs for Colombia. Patton, who has a degree in divinity, argues forcefully for a profound and meaningful engagement of religious factors in international affairs, especially where tensions are high and where religious forces can contribute both to conflict and to establishing a sustained and durable peace.

Let’s begin at the beginning. What led you to your current work and position?

I came to it by a circuitous route! I have two undergraduate degrees: in art and in neuroscience, taking six years to get there. In some senses I was bipolar then, with conflicting interests. I liked studio art, language, dramatic arts, science, and poetry but did not like long hours in the studio. I did not like studying and was very unsure what I wanted to do. For the first few years I was a miserable student; today I would probably be labeled as ADHD. I became more committed to the “life of the mind” later on. I figured out school in the end, making the dean’s list, but less by academic rigor than just figuring out the system.

Were you a seeker? Exploring the options?

Not really. Just confused! I was uncertain as to what I wanted to do. The seeker label was perhaps more true later on, when I was working on different dimensions of the challenge.

But going back a bit further, where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Newport News, Virginia—my father was a nuclear submariner. But six months after my birth my parents moved to Connecticut, where they have been ever since, living in the same house. That’s where I went to college. My family was Catholic, and that’s how I grew up.

And after college?

I still was very unsure about what I wanted to do, but I did know that I did not want a regular job. So I joined the Peace Corps and went to Paraguay, where I worked as a beekeeper and did other odd things here and there with farmers. Over that time, I became hooked on development work. So when I came back to the United States I worked for HIID [Harvard Institute for International Development], while it was still alive. I was there from 1998 to 1999.

What did you do there?

I was working on Latin America, a peon really. Among the people I worked with was Ronnie MacLean. I had a chance to see him in Bolivia when he was minister of foreign affairs. I remember Ronnie fondly, and how at HIID we had to increase the size of font because he was as blind as a bat. Jeff Sachs was still head of HIID at the time; it’s fascinating to see how he has gone through a significant transformation himself, from a neo-conservative figure to someone who champions so many progressive global causes. I guess that’s what happens when you have massive success when you are very young.

And it was there that I fell in with what you might call the “wrong crowd,” notably a bunch of Jesuits liberation theologians. Father [Kevin F.] Burke over at the Jesuit divinity school was one of them and became a mentor. I also got to know Father J. Bryan Hehir, who was a great inspiration.

I had left the Catholic Church when I was 17 years old, much to my mother’s dismay. I was in what you might call a Taoist-Buddhist-agnosto-atheist moment. The Jesuits were quite willing to listen to my rants about the Catholic Church and my Catholic upbringing, however. I remember being surprised to hear them say “That all makes a lot of sense within a Catholic theology.” I had no intention of going back to the Catholic Church but found myself inspired by the mystical elements of the Jesuit exercises, as well as other spiritual mentors I had met at the time. I started to be able to put names to things I thought were relevant and important about religion, but seemed out of the reach of my childhood religious doctrine. 

So I decided to apply to divinity school at Harvard. I was accepted and got a scholarship. I started out there, pulling a Krushchev, banging my shoe on the table and ranting about how I was not religious and didn’t plan to become religious. They kind of looked at me with bemusement and reminded me that this was Harvard Divinity School, a Unitarian Universalist bastion, and it was okay not to be religious and to discuss it openly. Being there opened many doors as I could do coursework in many places. I took courses at the Kennedy School, with the Jesuits, the Episcopal Divinity School, at the Fletcher School, and other places. I realized that I needed some more technical skills and applied to Fletcher also, at the same time. I bounced back and forth between Harvard Divinity School and Fletcher and, in the end, after a rather lengthier time than normal, finished with two master's degrees. Pragmatism was never my forte. I got my two degrees in 2003 and 2004.

During this period, I made my first foray into the issues of drugs and conflict in Latin America. I got a grant that supported a trip to Bolivia, and spent a couple of months there. I went there, essentially with a video camera and the phone number of single Maryknoll priest, with an eye to publish something about the impact of the drug war on people and on civil society. During that remarkable visit I met Evo Morales, now the president, but at the time in hiding in Cochabamba somewhere. It was a remarkable group of Maryknoll sisters, Catholic nuns, who introduced me. They are potent people in the field, the nuns, and tend to be liberal activists on every social topic except sexual matters. They are some of the most effective and brave people I have met anywhere. They opened paths for me. I filmed cocaleros in action, discussions with Evo, bombs being dismantled in coca fields, and other dramatic events. I was shooting all this from the hip with my camera. Later, I went down to Bolivia to film Evo when he was a congressman. I have wonderful footage, right here, but have never done anything with it. This was in 2001.

During this period (in 2002) I also went to Cambodia for about three months, where I was working with the Asia Foundation and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). This was probably my first work that explicitly centered on religion. My focus was the role of the Buddhist community in the post-conflict space, and specifically some aspects of what I call doctrinal technology. The Buddhist community there was at a critical point as all leaders had been wiped out during the Khmer Rouge period or had fled. I had been chosen for a Slawson Fellowship for NGO Management through Fletcher. I spent most of my time in the temples and communities, interviewing and training Buddhists. However, I found the Buddhist community to be pretty pacified. Whether it was the effect of the years of bitter conflict, of the evisceration of leadership, or fear of Hun Sen, or the quietism that had struck civil society in the post-conflict period, I am not sure. But the Buddhist monks were in reality active only in the most elementary Buddhist rites, like burials, and educating kids whose parents could not afford to care for them. But a lot of what was core to Buddhist practices was not so strong, and the monks did not necessarily see themselves as an effective part of transforming civil society. 

So what came after you got your degrees?

I did the natural thing for someone who had master's degrees in divinity and conflict resolution, which was to go to Costa Rica and try to set up a pro-environmental, pro-social tourism business. Sadly, after hanging on (and hanging out) for ten months, the business fell on its face when we lost the funding we thought we had. I spent the time driving a battered jeep around and learning how to surf. I also did some pro bono social activities. For example, I helped conduct negotiations between a gas company and the community where they planned to install a gas station right along the river, which would potentially endanger the egg laying areas of sea turtles on the coast. The community was being steamrolled. And then I ran out of funds and came back to the United States.

So, what was next in this odyssey?

This was another turn in the road! I took a job in a local college (Mitchell College) teaching comparative religion, and I considered running for Congress. I spent some time exploring the possibility, but there were several factors against a run, including the fact that I was clearly not ready for the rigors of a public office candidacy. But the initial impetus was that at that time, under Bush, I felt strongly that we needed to challenge the Republican Party in the district. It is where I grew up, around a submarine base, and the Democrat who had run in the previous election had lost. In the end, I was talked out of running by the people around the man who eventually ran, Joe Courtney. He had the labor and teachers and other unions and the Democratic machine behind him, and I had no money and only a few contacts and, though it was the district where I had grown up, I was seen by some as a carpetbagger. So I dropped that bid and supported Courtney. He wound up winning by a very slim minority (a very few votes). He has retained the seat, increasing his margin to about 63 percent in the last election. And he is still kind enough to receive me in his office whenever I visit unannounced! 

How did you get involved in peacebuilding work?

I decided then that it was time to get a job in the field where I had worked earlier and am working now. I connected with Chic Dambach, who had just taken over the Alliance for Peacebuilding, in Washington, D.C. At that time, it amounted essentially to a person and a half, and I worked there for a time, taking on the task of strategic planning, with the idea of reestablishing the direction he wanted to take. 

I then interviewed for a Latin America regional director position with American Friends Service Committee. I had worked with them in graduate school, on advocacy and other activities so I had some history there. However, I clearly did not have the administrative experience for that position. They essentially created a deputy director position for me, based in Bogota. So I bounced back and forth between Philadelphia and Bogota. But the circumstances of the hire made it a challenge. AFSC’s office was going through a difficult phase at the time. A previous director, a quite remarkable woman, had been let go. A white American male coming in to take her place was bound to create some resentment among a very activist group working largely with marginalized people, even though we were in many respects natural allies with a clear congress of ideas. I found myself thrown into something of a lion’s den. Tensions within the Latin American arm of the organization, ironically since it was so dedicated to peace, were running high. We did the best we could, running a set of rural development programs that, among other features, focused on Afro-Colombian women. But then AFSC hired a new regional director, who set the organization on a different course, essentially focused on urban citizen security. I understood and sympathized with the shift, justified by the fact that AFSC was small and there were many others working on rural development. But it created a lot of enemies, amounting to a complete schism, especially within the AFSC United States crowd. I remember getting out of the elevator in Philadelphia (the headquarters) and seeing a placard with a quotation from William Penn saying “Let us see now what love can accomplish,” then going along the corridor where flames seemed to be shooting across the halls. It was sadly ironic for such a great and storied conflict resolution organization.

In the next period my work with AFSC focused on the problem of gang violence. It was creeping up on 2008 at the time. I had a promising pilot program, where we hoped to draw on experience with youth and police from Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile, etc. The ultimate strategy was to expand the program beyond our work in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, working with youth on controlling violence, to other countries. But then the 2008 economic crisis hit. AFSC did its budgeting on the basis of pledges and the schedule on which pledges were supposed to be paid out. But people simply could not meet their pledges—they did not have the money. So AFSC found itself with a massive shortfall of funds. In my program we were spending more on directors’ salaries than on programs, which seemed unethical to me. What was going to be a multi-country expansion was stalled as a small Colombia program. The director of the Latin American program was based in Brazil so, when I left, the Colombia office was closed. 

And what came after your AFSC work?

I worked for the U.S. State Department for a year and a half. It began in an unpromising way with an interview, by Skype, with the State Department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and stabilization (S/CRS) office—what is now the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. The interview was difficult, with patches where we could not hear well, and I was not hopeful. But shortly thereafter they offered me a job. 

I had been with Andrea, now my wife, for a few years then. She was in Bordeaux, studying French, when I took the D.C. job. We moved up our plans to marry, came to Washington, and not long afterwards our daughter was born. 

I was initially supposed to go to Afghanistan and began the preparations for deployment. But instead there was a need in South Sudan, to look at conflict stabilization there and advise the ambassador. When I arrived there were only two of us from the bureau who were supposed to look at conflict issues for the whole of the south, one for the region west of the Nile, the other to the east. We slowly staffed up a conflict stabilization team, and eventually had a dozen or so people in the field and another eight  to 10 in the embassy. 

How do you assess that experience in South Sudan, with the benefit of hindsight?

What we did was not enough, unfortunately. Specifically, the knowledge and insight we gained from our work on the ground was not sufficiently acted upon. We wrote a lot of cables and memos, laying out what we thought was wrong. But it seemed like more effort was put into taking certain adjectives out of the cables than mobilizing resources to tackle the issues. I sound a bit cynical now, but we found USAID and State telling us often what we could not do. There were various reasons for this. The State Department office had been established quite suddenly to support work in coordinating efforts to counter tensions, but it was work that USAID had done for many years. They rightly felt they had the expertise. S/CRS’s job was to go in and advise the ambassador, but many ambassadors seemed to feel that they had enough advisors with their team and did not want a bunch of outsiders “parachuting in.” The task has never stopped being hard, and now the office has devolved into a bureau, as the role of coordinator just seemed too challenging within the bureaucracy. But the office at the time had some of the smartest people I know working in the field of conflict, for example Paul Turner, who is now at Creative Associates. The bureaucratic infrastructure made it hard for those folks to be flexible.

So in South Sudan, we had lots of warnings and lots of advice, but little happened as a result. There were a lot of challenges. But I think it might have been financial craziness that for me was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had been asking for money to buy trucks so we could get to communities, at a time when getting around Sudan was extraordinarily hard. I spent six months begging. My requests were turned down for various reasons over and over. We had been given this expensive driving course in the United States before deployment but weren’t allowed to drive. Instead, we had to walk into unknown villages and rent vehicles with drivers for $300/day. That, or rent them from other NGOs. We had 18-year-old Dinka kids who were wonderful translators and knowledgeable about conditions…but horrible drivers. I was more likely to be driven into a ditch in one of the largest swamps in the world and be eaten by a crocodile than to die of malaria or typhoid. But when an official in the United States saw what we were doing, they panicked about liability and sent us a US$1.6 million aircraft that had little operational use beyond taking the ambassador around. 

So much time and energy were wasted. We were watching so much waste in a desperate situation that we could see clearly and where we had ideas on ways to help in a far better way. The lack of understanding of what we were getting into was problematic. In the Sudan, especially, where the United States had so much responsibility for its creation and was the only real guarantor of its success, I believe that we failed miserably in our responsibility. We could have done far more, and we should get more grief for what we did not do.

When I came back to the United States I was somewhat soured. I was “lent” to USAID, working on the conflict assessment framework and the Latin America portfolio. I also took over Dave Huntsinger’s religion and conflict portfolio, since he was in Afghanistan. I started talking to many people around Washington, D.C. about the latter, and one name in particular came up frequently: Dr. Douglas Johnston.

And what brought you to ICRD?

It was another unanticipated turn!

While I was at Fletcher my father urged me to meet a man he had known as a nuclear submariner. I said I would but never followed through. Meanwhile, the guy, who was Doug Johnston, had founded the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD). Years later, people in Washington urged me to meet Doug and so we spoke on a Friday. A half-hour talk turned into three hours. Monday morning early Doug called. I was not looking for a job, and he was not looking to hire someone, but, as Doug said, he saw powerful common interests. As he told it, when he heard a small voice telling him to do something, he saw it as a divine sign. So he urged me to come work for him. We had a month of lunches so he could talk me into it and so that I could be convinced that his work was not about proselytizing (I had seen proselytizing linked to international work do a lot of damage). He finally convinced me to come to ICRD by saying “Look, you are a risk taker. Come take the risk!” That was in 2011, so I have been there for nearly six years.

He put me to work at first on a strategic plan. At that stage ICRD’s only work to a large scale was the education work in Pakistan, and he was well on his way to securing the first grant for work in Saudi Arabia. My idea was to expand our scope demographically and geographically. In truth what I saw as my primary task in the early years to ensure that ICRD outlived Doug Johnston, regardless of who took over for him. At that time, when I traveled and mentioned ICRD I would get mostly blank stares, but everyone knew and loved Doug. I wanted to be sure that ICRD would carry forward its important vision, no matter who occupied the corner office.

And that vision was that religion is not just another variable to be taken into account in doing policy development. It is a profound way of expressing a world view that affects every person’s beliefs and lives. That is true for the spiritual or religious, but also for those who profess no faith. They are affected by the religion of others, for good or ill, but also ground their own behaviors in a set of values. It is these values that are a profound influencer on people’s behaviors.

The world faces many crises that are driven by and could be helped by people’s spirituality. We need to be out front, taking these dimensions seriously. The center really gets that and takes it seriously. We call people to follow their better angels.

Can you highlight some of ICRD’s work today? You are, I know, deeply engaged on Colombia.

Indeed, ICRD’s Colombia work is up to me, as the only Spanish speaker. We are in between phases, and our funding search is flagging a bit at the moment for want of time, as other things are growing and occupying so much energy. And sadly a large grant we had hoped for to support the work did not come through. 

Our main idea is to give the government a reconciliation tool to support the reintegration process. That is missing at the moment. There has been much training for former combatants, but nothing has been consciously done to deal with the community relationships where combatants are expected to return. But if you don’t deal with the many resentments, if you don’t address the shortcomings of restitution, the effort cannot succeed. We have done such training, helping to build up women’s groups as well as others, and to build on different strands of interfaith dialogue. It is vital to bring the victims of violence into the center in any reconciliation process, and to work toward communications between victims and perpetrators of violence. Elements of reconciliation, such as restitution, must be defined by those who experienced the conflict and, if at all possible, were direct adversaries. We have done a number of workshops on reconciliation practice with victims and faith leaders. We work to give people agency for reintegration. We have had good success and are convinced this could be a powerful tool.

What are some other ICRD areas of focus?

We are focusing on the religious prejudice of different kinds in the texts of Saudi Arabia. This can have huge impact because of the influence of Saudi textbooks across the world—and we’ll be looking at impact in Indonesia, Belgium, and Tunisia, and the aim is to expand the work to other countries. This will allow us to expand our options. The better we get at the work, looking at the cultural impact, external sources etc., the more we can hope to accomplish.

We continue our work in Pakistan, working with women madrasa heads and CSO [civil society organization] leaders on a role in [countering violent extremism] as well as working on narratives to counter sectarian violence. We are working in Yemen, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Morocco to understand the role that ultra-conservative, but non-violent, religious leaders can play in countering violent extremism. We are training local CSO leaders in Yemen on formal conflict resolution techniques. In both Yemen and Morocco we’ve trained faith leaders and CSO leaders on countering violent extremism.

We also have a small program on countering Islamophobia in the United States that we are currently looking to expand, to grapple more broadly with religious prejudice in general.

Does ICRD do much work in Nigeria?

In Africa, our focus is mostly on Tunisia, Morocco, and, historically, Sudan. In fact, ICRD has done very little on Nigeria, though Doug Johnston visited there some years ago. ICRD has tended to see Nigeria as an overworked problem, where there may not be much value for us to add, as a small organization. We have two connections to work there, however: the first with the Interfaith Mediation Center and the work of Jame Wuye and Imam Ashafa, who focus mainly on the Muslim-Christian conflicts in the north; the other with the Conflict Stabilization team at the State Department, which has centered their work more on the Delta region. Their focus is more on political violence and the risk to infrastructure, I believe, not on our broader interest in faith and conflict. 

What about coordination of this work? We both know this is a confusing and crowded field, with various efforts to coordinate and lead. How do you see the priorities?

Coordination is a challenge. No one really wants to be coordinated, and efforts to do so rarely work. What would be valuable, though, is having a facilitated space for self-coordination and collaboration planning. For that to work, we all need to be honest and humble. We all need resources, but we also need to recognize honestly what we do best, and cede some areas to others, recognizing that the cause and all our work will be advanced if we work better together and are not so possessive about our particular molehills. It is not easy because of the difficult funding climate; people’s jobs are at stake. But it is important to create the space for NGOs to collaborate more effectively and avoid wasteful overlap. It would also be helpful to be creative in eliciting from folks what their strengths and weaknesses are. We are all way too busy to keep up with everything that others are doing. Unfortunately, what is the glory for the facilitator? Who will be drawn to what can be a rather thankless task—especially where most of us are drawn to the work because we prefer implementation? There is some funding support for this kind of facilitation, but the tendency is to drift to being an implementer rather than a facilitator. That is a 180 degree turn away from what could be a very functional and constructive role.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.

Opens in a new window