The U.S. State Department will be reaching out more to religious leaders and communities at home and abroad, Secretary of State John Kerry explained as he announced Wednesday a new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives within the State Department.
"I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work," Kerry told State Department workers. "Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together."
The new office will be headed by Dr. Shaun Casey, professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. An expert on religion and politics, Casey wrote a 2009 book on religion and the 1960 presidential election. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he worked on encouraging evangelicals to vote for then-candidate Barack Obama.
Kerry remarked that he and Casey became friends after meeting at a dinner in 2005 because Casey is a theologian interested in politics and Kerry is a politician interested in religion. If he were in college today, Kerry added, he would major in comparative religion "because that's how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today."
Casey, speaking after Kerry, also recalled their conversations about religion and politics.
"At that time," he said, "some were claiming that religion poisons everything, while others were saying that religion would save and solve everything. You knew, however, that the reality was somewhere in between.
"I remember thinking at the time how unusual it was for a public figure to see the potential in and the power of religious groups tackling extreme poverty, convincing people to combat global climate change, fighting for global human rights, mitigating conflict and building peace, even at a time when others focused on those religious folk who committed acts of violent extremism, perversely claiming justice in the name of their own faith. From that day forward, I admired your willingness to defy the conventional wisdom that dictated religion was a purely private, personal choice, and thus communities bounded by faith must be entirely left outside of discussions of policy. That is why, today, engaging these communities in the context of policy has always struck me as being a matter of very great and deep importance."
Melissa Rogers, head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, echoed Casey's message that religion can be both a force for good or evil.
"We have seen the power of religion throughout human history," she said. "In our own country, for example, we've seen religious leaders join with others in championing causes like abolition, civil rights, and the eradication of poverty. In so doing, these advocates have often led our nation to heed the better angels of its nature.
"Similarly, around the world, on issues ranging from health to education to conflict prevention, religious and other civil society leaders are tackling some of our most pressing challenges. They help create more peaceful and secure communities. Of course, as we know all too well, there are also times when religion is abused to promote violence and destabilize communities."
The new office, Rogers added, will have three primary objectives: promote sustainable development, advance pluralism, human rights, and religious freedom, and address violent conflicts.
Kerry and Rogers both emphasized that the new office will not violate the Constitutional restriction on government establishment of religion or Thomas Jefferson's understanding of a "wall of separation" between government and religion. State Department employees will be given special guidance, Rogers explained, on how they should interact with religious leaders and communities.