Religion in the Education of Foreign Service Officers

By: David Hollenbach

April 6, 2017

Responding to: The Future of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy Under Trump

Religion in the Education of Foreign Service Officers Peter Mandaville’s recent article on “The Future of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy under Trump” is rich in practical wisdom. Mandaville draws on his experience serving in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs established by Secretary John Kerry in 2013. Following his recommendations will be of notable benefit both to U.S. foreign policy and to current staffing decisions at the State Department. In the longer term, Mandaville calls for greater attention to the role of religion in the education of future diplomats at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. His recommendations also have relevance in university programs such as those at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service that prepare men and women for service in governmental and nongovernmental bodies that deal with global affairs.

The visible presence of religion in several contemporary conflicts has played a particular role in sensitizing policymakers to the role of religious communities in world affairs today. Mandaville rightly warns, however, against narrowing concern with religion to its relation to violent extremism. He is on target when he stresses how religion plays a notably wider role than the contributions of Islamic traditions to the prevention or promotion of conflict. Mandaville knows from his experience at the State Department that religious actors have influence in many other areas of international affairs, such as promoting good governance, reducing corruption, protecting the environment, advancing development, and enhancing global health. Future policymakers need training and education that help them become more attentive to the multiple ways religious communities influence these and other domains.

For example, government representatives would not have been surprised by the influence of Pope Francis on the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change if they were well informed about the Catholic stance on environmental issues in recent decades. Catholic leaders have argued for close interconnection between protecting the environment and overcoming poverty for decades.

Buddhism has also played a positive role in advancing human rights and protecting refugees through the work of those who have come to be called “engaged Buddhists,” such as the Buddhist primate of Cambodia, Maha Ghosananda. Maha Ghosananda took vigorous action to counter the chaos caused by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and was a powerful voice on behalf of the displaced in the region. On the other hand, Buddhist influence has had a negative effect on the rights of the Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar, forcing many to flee as refugees into neighboring countries such as Bangladesh.

Religion has played a similarly complex role in the Arab/Israeli standoff. Religiously engaged Israelis are often pro-settlement and sometimes seem minimally concerned with the human rights of Palestinians. On the other hand, one of the most important Orthodox voices in the Jewish world, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, has written eloquently of the duties of Jews to respect the “dignity of difference” and of Israeli Jews to respect the rights of non-Jews. Both voices need to be familiar to those concerned with the future of Palestine, including those shaping public policy.

Thus, whether dealing with climate change at the Paris COP meeting, with the Rohingya crisis in Southeast Asia, with settlements on the West Bank, or with another of the many areas where religious communities play a significant role, diplomats and policymakers need to be informed about important religious issues that arise in their areas of concern. They need education and training that will enable them to understand the basic forms of interaction of religion with global politics. This does not mean, of course, that policymakers should become specialists in religious studies or theologians. But they do need to be informed about religious issues well enough to know when to ask for advice from religious specialists.

It should be a new priority today to equip our diplomats and Foreign Service officers with the knowledge about religion needed for their professional work. We should explore how to provide such education more creatively and effectively. Georgetown’s commitments to education in global affairs, to an intellectually serious understanding of religion, and to interreligious dialogue position it to provide leadership in developing the kind of education needed. Through such education those working in diplomacy and global affairs will able to strengthen their contributions to peace and justice.

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