What’s Good for the Goose Administration Could Be Disastrous for the Gander Administration: Religion, Diplomacy, and the 2016 Election

By: Mara Willard

December 1, 2016

Diplomacy and Religion in a New Administration

Given the personnel that the new president has privileged, the secretary of state should not take Secretary Kerry's advice to engage religion to address the problems facing our nation. The risk, already in evidence, is that United States will engage in dangerously ill-informed ways with religious actors in matters of foreign affairs. As a result, the new administration should return to the habits of the Cold War era and clean the space of diplomacy from the interests of religion.


The outgoing Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Shaun Casey, likes to quote his mentor Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, S.J., on the role of religious actors in matters of foreign affairs: “Such work as we are doing can be compared to brain surgery—a necessary task, but fatal if not done well.”

The Obama administration tasked the Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA) with implementing the National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. Federal attorneys regularly review the S/RGA according to established legal and practical restrictions on this office, which itself is subject to the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Under Secretary Kerry, this office engaged with not only Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christian leaders, but with Muslim and Jewish community leaders from around the world and followers of traditional religions.

President-Elect Trump has not yet named a secretary of state at the time of this writing. Just as unclear is the future of the S/RGA.

But judging from the advisors that have been named, surgical strikers and not brain surgeons may characterize the next administration’s Department of State.

If so, Hehir’s emphasis on empirical research and analysis through moral rubrics, such as Geneva Accords, human rights, or just war theory, is likely to be swept out with the Democratic National Committee’s unused bunting.

Two futures seem possible for this office:

First, the office may be eliminated as a budget line to satisfy Republican budget priorities to diminish the size, scale, and cost of the federal government. Already the State Department’s work of diplomacy and American soft power seems to be fading in favor of retired military leadership.

Then again, it may be hard for any administration—including this one—to cut the religion office at the State Department. Should it persevere, all signs point to a sharp departure in the kind of work realized by this office under Secretary Kerry. Specifically, the S/RGA may see re-empowerment of the white Christian religious right that drove the electoral shift and advancement of policies that favor this constituency.

In this way, the S/RGA may move closer to the work of the State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom (ORF). Priorities of Trump administration advisors suggest that the ORF will protect and privilege Christian populations and mission work. Vice-President Elect Pence has a track record of formalizing policies that advance his Christian worldview, which extends to power and territory arrangements in Israel.

The office may be repurposed as a vehicle to serve the logic of Trump administration advisors that already use the essence of a person or a region to assign religious identity, practice, and/or community. Islamism is “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people,” says Donald Trump's national security advisor, Michael Flynn. If Islamism is essential to all Muslims, then it follows for Flynn that Muslims, those born to a Muslim family, or those who hail from a Muslim-majority region or country are enemies of American state interests and security.

Administrations change. The prerogative of the Office of the U.S. President is to mandate a mission for the Department of State. Rejection of academic expertise was a rallying cry for the 2016 election.

Academics have voiced concerns about this project even under the Obama administration. They make pointed challenges, in works such as The Politics of Religious Freedom (2015), to the power politics that function in the name of U.S. power under purportedly neutral American rubrics of religion. Contributing scholars also challenge the use of religion as a category of policy analysis or identity by U.S. foreign policy organs, such as the S/RGA, as "un-American."

Should the office provide a ready-made staff to serve the policies of Flynn and others with similar views, it will be to the grief of political progressives and academics that staffed and secured the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, and who articulated the National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. They (myself included) must think again on the folly of Niebuhr’s children of light.

Perhaps the impending entry of the Trump administration will prompt constructive conversations between scholars of critical cultural studies and those of applied practical ethics. Should any of the above scenarios come to pass, they may agree as citizens that now is a prudent time to encourage smaller State Department reach on religion.
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