Approaching Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy: Evolutions, Lessons Learned, and Where We Go from Here

By: Susan Hayward

March 18, 2024

Since 2005, the year that the Henry Luce Foundation launched its Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, the landscape for approaches to religion in U.S. foreign policy have undergone several evolutions. From the “securitization of religion” with the launch of the so-called “War on Terror,” to the formation of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) under the Obama administration, to the 2020 Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom and “Abraham Accords,” the past two decades have shown us several manners of thinking about and “engaging” religion in U.S. foreign policy; some approaches are for better, and some for worse.

Today, we are at an impasse. The Biden administration has made no major updates to the structural changes imposed by the Trump administration in disbanding the RGA office, and religion once again runs the risk of being siphoned and simplified to a degree where it becomes overlooked in foreign policy spaces. So, where do we go from here? This is the question that our project New Approaches to Religion in U.S. Foreign Policy aims to undertake.

With input from a range of experts who have extensive experience in government, civil society, and academia, this project brings stakeholders together for a series of workshops to discuss the legacies of each iteration of religion in the policy sphere, lessons learned, and potential for engagement. Through these conversations, the project aims to collect in-depth recommendations that could usher in a new direction for religion and U.S. foreign policy characterized by collaboration, creativity, and, when necessary, the challenging of previous normative assumptions about both religion and secularity.

The first of these series of workshops, held in the spring of 2022, surfaced three major insights:

  1. One of the major pitfalls of conversations about religion in and outside of policy spheres is over-reliance on binaries (e.g. “good” religion vs. “bad” religion) and broad categorizations (including “religion” itself). To mitigate the impacts of these harmful generalizations, one should begin by curating a more acute awareness of the contexts and structures in which they and their work are situated. Doing this will allow for greater richness in how religion is understood not only as institutions or actors, for example, but for the role it plays in shaping identities, cultures, worldviews, and so-called “secular” systems and structures.
  2. Domestic grassroots organizing around social justice issues—including racial and climate justice, and attention to the enduring nature of colonial dynamics in the global system—has led to cultural shifts that ask organizers, advocates, scholars, and policymakers alike to interrogate the “who,” “why,” and “how” of their work. These questions also shed light on the importance of intersectional solidarity across marginalized and oppressed groups. This discourse is helpful to conversations about religion and foreign policy because it helps to challenge the structures of inequality that feed into inequitable and reductive understandings of exacting change through foreign policy generally, and the religion and foreign policy space in particular. These approaches must be interrogated through these considerations and adapted to ensure they are best driving just changes in support of peace, human rights, and equitable development worldwide.
  3. The pragmatic continues to be an ongoing challenge in bridging the language of the academy with the limitations of the policymaking sphere. It is important to be aware of the interlocutors who bring conversations about religion and religious literacy principles into foreign policy spaces. We should think about how we measure “success” and what these successes point toward in terms of a long-term vision of justice.

Though these points only just begin to graze the surface of ideas explored during this project’s initial conference, they also provide a foundation for setting in motion the conversations to come. The second workshop is planned for summer 2024 and will focus on questions about how we define success in this ongoing and ever-evolving work—and how we might replicate the characteristics of previous initiatives which tactfully engaged religion in foreign policy to make a lasting impact in a positive direction.

Ultimately, this new project is deeply connected to the Berkely Center’s mission to seek a more just and peaceful world by building knowledge and advancing cooperation through research, teaching, and dialogue. We are excited to continue to build upon the work the project has done so far and offer further practical recommendations for bettering strategies for approaching religion in U.S. foreign policy going forward.

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