Religion and Diplomacy: A Conversation with Judd Birdsall

By: Judd Birdsall

January 27, 2021

Religion plays a critical role in a number of international challenges, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and global refugee crisis to peacebuilding work. Global faith communities take part in diplomatic work on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to environmental health. The freedom of religion or belief is also a focus of foreign policymakers in the United States and abroad. Addressing these and other urgent issues is the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD), a forum of diplomats from North America and Europe who collaborate on religion-related policy issues.

In January 2021, TPNRD Director Judd Birdsall joined the Berkley Center, where the network will be hosted for three years through the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation. Birdsall was previously based at Cambridge University, where he founded the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies. He has also served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. 

This week, the Berkley Forum sat down with Birdsall to discuss his journey as a scholar and policymaker, the work of the TPNRD, and some of the pressing issues at the nexus of religion and diplomacy. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved in policymaking and scholarship on religion and diplomacy? What are your primary research interests? 

My general interest in the interplay between religion and public life goes back to my childhood. Growing up in Japan and America, I inhabited two radically different cultures that are marked by different religious demographics and even quite different conceptions of “religion” altogether. My travels throughout Asia, to places like Myanmar and China, made me interested specifically in the issue of religious persecution.

It was during my time at the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom that I came to see that the promotion of religious freedom is one vital aspect of a much larger arena of diplomatic engagement with religion. Religious individuals and communities care about—and are often actively involved in—a wide range of causes, not just “religious” causes like religious freedom. 

Religious individuals and communities care about—and are often actively involved in—a wide range of causes, not just 'religious' causes like religious freedom.

Engaging such groups through the instrumentality of a religious freedom office misses many opportunities to engage and even partner with them on shared goals around other global challenges. So, I worked with State Department, USAID, and White House colleagues to press for the creation of a new office at the State Department that would focus on engagement with religious communities. I was thrilled when Secretary John Kerry established the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) in 2013 and tapped Shaun Casey, now director of the Berkley Center, to lead it. 

Today, I’m broadly interested in religion and international affairs, but most focused on the question of how foreign ministries engage religious actors in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives—including the promotion of religious freedom. I’m also interested in religion and politics in the United States and in how domestic faith dynamics shape American foreign policy. Finally, during my nine years in England I became increasingly interested—and quite professionally invested—in transatlantic relations. 

What type of work does the TPNRD do and how does it add value? 

The TPNRD is a forum that fosters communication, coordination, and collaboration among diplomats from North America and Europe who are the point people on religion within their respective foreign ministries or multilateral institutions. We arrange conferences for these officials, commission papers on topics of their interest, maintain the Religion & Diplomacy website, send a monthly Bulletin, and maintain a Google Group. We also have a transatlantic Advisory Council of leading experts who inform and augment the work of our diplomats.

There are several things that are valuable about the TPNRD. First, there is the camaraderie. For some of our participants, working on questions of religion can involve swimming against a tide of skepticism, indifference, or just unfamiliarity within their ministries. The TPNRD provides a community of officials who share the experience of these challenges and a conviction that taking religion seriously is essential to effective foreign policy formulation and implementation. 

The TPNRD provides a community of officials who share a conviction that taking religion seriously is essential to effective foreign policy formulation and implementation.

Second, we engage with a critical eye. In our field, it’s common to hear variations of the phrase “religion is part of the problem and therefore part of the solution.” That’s a useful reminder, especially to those who might neglect the religious dimension of a given problem. But it’s also a useful reminder to those who might overplay the role of religious ideas and institutions or overestimate the influence of religious leaders. Religion may be part of the problem and solution, but only a part. Within the TPNRD we talk a lot about striving for a “right-sized” understanding of the role of religion. 

Third, there is a dynamic energy—and certainly sometimes a creative tension—in the group, as diverse traditions of church-state relations and contemporary religio-political dynamics influence different modalities of engaging with religious groups. The countries represented in the TPNRD span the spectrum from those with state churches to those with strict church-state separation.

Fourth, our model of scholar-practitioner collaboration enables diplomatic practice related to religion to be informed by the latest scholarly analysis—and vice versa. We ask our participating diplomats what issues they are wrestling with, and then we commission top experts to write papers on those issues and present their analysis to the diplomats. These papers can be found in our website’s Library.

What are your goals for the future while the TPNRD is hosted at the Berkley Center?

The Berkley Center provides an exciting new platform for the TPNRD. I think there is great alignment of mission and ethos between the center and the TPNRD in terms of producing scholarship on religion in world affairs that equips policymakers and other practitioners to foster peace and justice. 

In this next phase, we have three mutually reinforcing goals. First, we want to build upon our initial mutual learning phase and transition to a more active, collaborative posture within the network. Second, we want to ensure our scholarly interventions are more targeted to specific areas of practical collaboration. Third, we want to enhance our public engagement, ensuring that the publications produced by the TPNRD are made accessible to a wider readership. To that end, readers can follow us on Twitter at @ReligioDiplo and sign up for our monthly Bulletin.

How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected the interface between religion and diplomacy? 

Religion and diplomacy are both largely communal activities that rely heavily on in-person interaction. So, the lockdown has necessitated creativity and adaptability among religious groups and foreign ministries alike. 

For the TPNRD, we had to cancel our conferences in Ottawa and Berlin in 2020 and replace them with scaled-down meetings on Zoom. Those meetings showed us that virtual formats can work as a stop-gap measure and as a complement to in-person meetings. But for me, it also reinforced my view that there is no replacement for in-person interaction. So much of the value of a relational network like the TPNRD is in the informal, spontaneous interactions over a meal or during a coffee break. Those kinds of interactions are impossible to replicate in a virtual format.

Aside from the challenges, it certainly has been a fascinating time to observe the role of religion in the world. I wrote up some of my observations in a blog post for Religion & Diplomacy. For one thing, the varied faith responses to the pandemic and lockdown have reminded us afresh of what Scott Appleby famously called the “ambivalence of the sacred.” We’ve seen many religious groups respond to this unprecedented moment in constructive ways, with solidarity and ingenuity. Unfortunately, some religious or faith-inspired groups have responded much less constructively, fueling social tensions and suspicion toward medical experts and public officials. For nearly a year, the Berkley Center has done an outstanding job tracking and analyzing the religious responses to the pandemic.

The varied faith responses to the pandemic and lockdown have reminded us afresh of what Scott Appleby famously called the 'ambivalence of the sacred.'

The lockdown has also spurred a vigorous and clarifying debate on the acceptable limits on freedom of religion or belief. It’s not hyperbolic to say that 2020 saw the most pervasive restriction of communal religious practice in world history. And yet those restrictions were, in principle, legitimate—based on public health grounds. But some restrictions on religion have been excessive or discriminatory. And in some cases, governments afforded discriminatory privilege to certain religious groups amidst the general lockdowns. 

Do you have any insights for the Biden administration as it approaches religion and U.S. diplomacy, a subject of ongoing Berkley Center work

This is an important moment for reviewing and reforming the “religion and diplomacy” space within American foreign policy. I’ve recently written some articles on the topic and shared some further thoughts in the Brookings report “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build.” The Biden administration has the opportunity to make some much-needed changes rhetorically, conceptually, and institutionally. And here I am very much speaking in my personal capacity and not as a representative of the TPNRD.

Rhetorically, we need to see—and I think will see—a clear shift toward introspection and humility and away from the bravado that accompanied too much of the Trump administration’s statements on religious freedom. For instance, in his remarks at the rollout of the 2019 religious freedom report, Mike Pompeo called the United States “the greatest nation in the history of civilization,” and he said, “There is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom.” That kind of language just isn’t helpful, and it certainly isn’t credible. Consider the findings of the Pew Research Center. In Pew’s ratings of government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion, the United States is nowhere near the best in the world. The U.S. government’s external promotion of religious freedom—and all other rights and values—needs to honestly grapple with its domestic struggles. That kind of honesty and modesty—in tandem with a raft of policy changes—will help to restore credibility.

The U.S. government’s external promotion of religious freedom—and all other rights and values—needs to honestly grapple with its domestic struggles.

Conceptually, the Biden administration has the opportunity to rethink how the promotion of religious freedom relates to other human rights. Is religious freedom the “first freedom,” as Pompeo and other Trump officials proclaimed? Or is it one of many equally important, interdependent rights? My hope is that the Biden administration will actively and credibly promote religious freedom as an essential element of a broad human rights agenda. This approach has the chance to be more effective because U.S. religious freedom advocacy will be harder to dismiss as partisan or sectarian.

There is a similar conceptual question to be answered regarding the relationship between religious freedom and religious engagement. Over the course of the past few administrations, the U.S. government has made significant strides in its promotion of religious freedom and its engagement with religious communities. But a needless and unproductive partisan divide has emerged between these two related and complementary dimensions of diplomacy. To state the problem somewhat simplistically, Republican administrations have prioritized religious freedom over religious engagement, and Democratic administrations have done the opposite. This problem became particularly acute in the Trump era, given the perception of a lopsided focus on religious freedom and near elimination of the Obama-era Office of Religion and Global Affairs. 

Given the global importance of religious communities and the severity of religious persecution, the United States must do better. The Biden administration can avoid this political seesaw by vigorously championing both religious freedom and religious engagement. These two activities can be mutually reinforcing. A degree of religious freedom is needed for religious engagement to take place at all. Religious engagement, if done well, can foster the relationships of trust and respect between religious communities—and between those communities and the state—that create even more space for religious freedom. 

The Biden administration can avoid this political seesaw by vigorously championing both religious freedom and religious engagement.

Institutionally, a conceptual shift would prompt some rebalancing within the State Department bureaucracy. Religion is an amazingly complex aspect of human life, and it’s always embedded within other cultural phenomena, so there’s no ideal way to bureaucratize religion. But shrinking RGA and subsuming it within the Office of International Religious Freedom was unfortunate in my view. To enable both of these facets of diplomacy to thrive, I’m hopeful that the Biden administration with reconstitute a robustly resourced RGA office that is functionally distinct yet still well-coordinated with the religious freedom office.

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