USAID: The Intersection of Religion and World Affairs Is Still Important

By: Caleb Morell

November 3, 2014

In recent decades, the question of religion has become increasingly important for international relations, diplomacy, and development. In an article published shortly after the 9/11 attacks, international relations scholar Robert Keohane admitted "... All mainstream theories of world politics are relentlessly secular in motivation. They ignore the impact of religion." Indeed, as recent decades have shown, religion is neither dead nor politically passive. As a result, political solutions in the twenty-first century, including development work, must take the religious aspect of human life into account.

Admittedly, if paradigms are slow to adapt, institutions are even slower. However, a Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs (REWA) Certificate sponsored lunch on Thursday, October 16, 2014 brought good news. The lunch featured two practitioners who work at the nexus of religion and international affairs: Eduardo Vargas, who serves as the deputy director of Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (USAID), and Joshua Mogil (SFS '11), who works as the assistant to USAID administrator Rajiv Shah. During that lunch Eduardo and Joshua postulated that USAID and the US federal government’s approach to religion in international relations is changing for the better.

In recent years the Obama administration has extended what was formerly the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under the previous administration to fourteen new centers, now called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. These centers exist at 13 strategic federal departments, such as the Department of State, Department of Commerce, and the Department of Health and Human Services. They serve to incorporate faith dimensions into policy implementation.

Eduardo Vargas and Joshua Mogil also discussed how the State Department is restructuring its approach to religion. With the appointment of ethicist and theologian Shaun Casey as new head of the State Department's Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, they argued that religious voices are now being allowed a seat at the table.

On a more personal level, Eduardo Vargas and Joshua Mogil both voiced how important their background in religious studies was for their work in international development. Eduardo shared a few stories where coming from a faith perspective had opened doors when negotiating with governments and international agencies. Furthermore, it opened the door for many job opportunities and aids their perspective at work on a daily basis. Both remarked that if a REWA-like program had existed while they were college students they would have taken advantage of the program.

The lunch discussion showed how religious expertise is a strategic area for students to develop in order to secure jobs and advance in work in development and international relations. Through studying religion, students develop a cultural sensitivity and an ability to see how policy questions relate to a wider range of religious and cultural issues. Every international issue has a faith dimension that requires religious expertise. Developing that expertise through participating in the REWA certificate seems like a strategic investment for anyone considering a career in international relations, politics, or development.

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USAID: The Intersection of Religion and World Affairs Is Still Important