Last month (November), I was fortunate to be able to attend the nerdstravaganza that is the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion annual conferences in Boston. Both during and after the conferences, I fielded a number of requests from friends and colleagues asking for recaps of specific sessions or of the overall experience. (Want to go back to Part 1? It’s here.)
I’ll do my best to summarize the main arguments of each presenter (and to not drown us all in minutae), then add a brief reaction/commentary. Though this will be multi-part, I don’t intend to summarize every session or encounter; just those that I found most intriguing or thought-provoking. I’d welcome interaction or feedback through the comments, or (as seems by far to be the favourite method of my faithful readers) private message through the Contact Form or email.
“Back from the Front Lines of Diplomacy: A Religion Scholar Reflects on the Role of Religion Expertise in U.S. Foreign Policy.” A Discussion Between Shaun Casey, Georgetown University; and Elizabeth Dias, TIME Magazine.
Shaun Casey is a “theoretical ethicist” who served the last three years of President Obama’s term under Secretary Kerry as a Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. State Department. The position no longer exists, as Kerry’s successor under the Trump administration, Rex Tillerson, wrote to Congress and advised them that he would place the Office of Religion and Global Affairs into a different, larger department (http://religionandpolitics.org/2017/09/05/how-the-state-department-has-sidelined-religions-role-in-diplomacy/).
According to Casey, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) was meant to advise the Secretary of State when issues of religion intersected:
“There is no such thing as religion in the abstract, no essence of religion to be isolated abstractly and then applied to the world. Religion needs to be understood in specific social, political, and historical contexts, interacting with myriad social and political dynamics. It is phenomenally complex, and policy makers are constantly tempted to follow stereotypes. Our job was to resist stereotypes and interpret religious dynamics in a manner that reflected nuance and study.”
The speaker highlighted the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conversation as a success of his office’s efforts, while the ongoing situation in Myanmar was an area where his office’s response should have had substantial improvements or a different response. Said Casey, the Myanmar situation was complicated in that visits by U.S. officials would have certainly been utilized for propaganda purposes as they had many times in the past, and that the media long ago became “bored” by the atrocities in this nation. Casey wondered aloud to the group assembled if he personally should have pressed harder on the Myanmar issue.
Another success Casey highlighted was the encounter with the Vatican in relation to Cuba. The Vatican served as the broker between the US and Cuba during these negotiations, and Casey was privileged to accompany Kerry to Cuba in 2014.
Casey also briefly touched upon the dynamics of being a small department under Secretary Kerry – as a new office, they had to be quite selective on where to push back against proposals, and which new initiatives to forward to the Secretary. Casey related an amusing story of a phone conversation with a policy friend in the White House during these negotiations – after demonstrating a keen interest in being more involved with the policy decisions therein, the advice he was given was to “stand down and shut up”…as has been observed, a wise man knows when to be silent and when to speak.
Pope Francis requested a one-on-one meeting with Kerry in 2016, and Casey was able to accompany Kerry to the Vatican. The speaker related his understandable nervousness and excitement as he waited to meet the Pontiff, and that once given the opportunity, observed that Francis “radiates something” pleasant, loving, and warm. As it was related to Casey later after the meeting, the Vatican wanted to know if their relationship with the new administration would go smoothly – such was the central topic of their meeting.*
Regarding this “new administration,” Casey did not mince words. He sees current policies which promote “Conservative Evangelical” religion, while focused on defeating Islamic religious thought (often nebulously and aggregiously vaguely defined), as based on horrific stereotypes. He further stated that policies put forward such as the Muslim ban and the DACA deportations are intentional in their chilling effect, as are proposals to tax graduate students and university endowments in the Senate tax bill.
Yet Evangelical Christianity has missed an opportunity in the current weak structure of religious outreach in the State Department. If a missionary misses their plane (perhaps the only flight out for the week), there is now often no one at the U.S. embassy to answer the phone to assist. Likewise, if a mission group or Christian charity wishes to build a desalinization plant in Africa, as an example…there is no one currently at the State Department to guide them through the bureaucracy to make the deals and relationships vital for such work to take place.
Casey’s observations and critiques reach back to the Obama administration as well. He cites a Progressive “false narrative” which says that religious issues are too complex and messy for bureaucrats to navigate, and that such endeavours are bound to end in ineffective fruitlessness; Casey takes substantial issue with these assumptions.
Further, an initiative under Obama named “Countering Violent Extremism” attempted to identify and thwart those “at risk” of engaging in terrorism (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/countering-violent-extremism/519822/). The initiative was panned by civil liberties groups, Muslims, and others, who maintained that such an initiative was not based in the realities of how ideology afffects extremist action. Casey related that respected imams and Muslim leaders whom he had build relationships with, when asked, replied that such initiatives were “insulting,” counterproductive to arresting extremism, and betrayed a misunderstanding of the vast diversity of the Islamic religious faith. Casey concludes that such an initiative betrayed both a failure of rhetoric and a failure of framework – the naivety of attempting to “moderate” 1.7 billion Muslims whose diversity of faith at least equals that of Christianity.
*As has been demonstrated during the Presidential campaign and into the first year of this current administration, the Vatican’s fears of a choppy relationship were unfortunately well-founded.
Casey and Dias’ interview during this session helped illuminate the tensions and difficulties which government policy interweaves with communities of religious faith. While we have focused at the government level on “religious extremism,” Casey was able to highlight some of the glaring foolishness and gross assumptions which previous administrations have employed in attempts to champion U.S. foreign policy abroad. Even so, Casey’s outlines of the current administration’s external religious thinking and policies (if one can even identify a cohesive policy as such) are sobering. I left this session with the impression that the less “outreach” our current administration undertakes with religious communities…the better off we and they will probably be. If Casey is willing to see his own previous posting disappear in obscurity rather than it be revived under the current political climate, this is telling.