Religion in Foreign Policy: How to Get it Right

The State Department’s new office sends an important signal that faith-based cooperation is no longer optional — it is essential.

The State Department headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Secretary of State John Kerry announced recently the creation of a new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, illustrating the U.S. government’s recognition that engagement with religious representatives, institutions, and organizations is crucial for fostering security, democracy, and development overseas.

This is a major step forward for U.S. diplomacy, which has long been wary of working with the religious world, or unsure how to do it right. Diplomats’ guardedness is not without reason, given the complex dynamics within faith communities. Working with this sector poses particular challenges and occasional unintended negative consequences. History has shown that not all religious engagement is good religious engagement. But the State Department’s new office sends an important signal that this kind of cooperation is no longer optional — it is essential.

At the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), we have researched how religion drives both conflict and peace, and we’ve engaged the religious sector in conflict zones for nearly two decades. From Colombia to Nigeria to Iraq to Burma, we have supported efforts by religious groups and leaders to mobilize communities against violence, spur reconciliation, heal trauma, challenge extremist religious narratives and push for policies that drive sustainable peace.

Through the course of our work on religion, we have identified key lessons which may help the new office make the most of its mandate while avoiding potential pitfalls.

- Initial
tone and process matter immensely:

Many religious leaders abroad are wary of being used by the international community. They feel they are engaged by foreign governments, donors and diplomats only when needed to sanction a new development project or respond to some “crisis” involving religion, and then are quickly forgotten. They have not been engaged in a sustained way, even when there are no crises going on, as worthy partners for a range of activities. For too long, these potential partners’ own concerns or priorities have been ignored or derided by the international community.

Some religious groups still carry the scars of historical and contemporary missionary activity by outside players. This has created sensitivities, resentments and mistrust particularly toward the West.

To overcome these concerns, the office will want to be seen as a consistent collaborator and supporter. Responsiveness, full transparency and a respectful tone of mutual engagement are vital elements of a constructive relationship in the sensitive environments where this office will be engaged.

Religious leaders might appreciate a “listening tour” by Dr. Shaun Casey, who will head the office, so he can hear directly about their hopes and fears for this new American policy of overseas religious engagement. This could be conducted in conjunction with an online campaign. The goal would be to demonstrate a willingness to genuinely hear religious representatives and to be responsive to their needs, rather than expecting them to simply support the current priorities of the U.S. government.

- Engagement must be inclusive:

History has shown that religious engagement by foreign governments has tended to target the same small clique of individuals and organizations in a particular country. This leads to backlash from those marginalized, and from lay people who are tired of their religious leaders traveling the world to conferences at the expense of time and attention paid to local issues. So broad engagement with a variety of religious interests will be important.

Moreover, engagement with religious groups has tended to target the male-dominated top of their hierarchies. This overlooks the fact that young people and women are influential as leaders of faith-based institutions, scholars, clergy, and shapers of beliefs and motivations — and often more closely connected to local communities. Exclusive interaction with older male clerics reinforces gender discrimination within traditions and in international relations. Women religious leaders — who exist in all traditions — as well as religious youth, cannot be left behind. The State Department can draw here on its increasing experience in recent years engaging youth and women abroad.

Intra-faith as well as interfaith work is important:

Interfaith dialogue and collaborative action have been heralded in many United Nations resolutions as key tools for peacebuilding. USIP’s experience in conflict zones affirms this, particularly in conflicts marked by identity divides. In addition, fostering dialogue and collaboration across divides within religious communities is equally important, for two reasons.

First, these divides can be even more intense and difficult to overcome than those between faiths.

Second, there are some religious figures who simply will not engage with the U.S. government or in interfaith activities. However, they might be reached by fellow religious leaders from their own community, outside the public eye or in events not complicated by involvement of the international community. The State Department can support, foster, and encourage from a distance these internal discussions within faith communities as vital to fostering peace and pluralism.

Engagement must go beyond talk:

Engagement of the religious sector has tended to gravitate toward large conferences or interfaith dialogue sessions. Too often, this interfaith “dialogue” is a series of monologues offered by preachers from different faiths that lift up positive religious narratives but do little to tackle complex issues. While these events carry important symbolic importance, too many can actually create a backlash, as observers become wary of religious leaders who make speeches at splashy events that belie their real attitudes and commitments.

Dialogue should be the means for developing strategic action that addresses real issues of common concern and builds trust all around. At the root of conflict, after all, are issues requiring structural transformation. Engagement of the religious sector must get to these deeper issues to accomplish lasting constructive change.

I wish the best for our colleagues in the Department of State as they expand their work on religious issues. I am certain they will find, as USIP has, that such engagement is challenging but also rewarding. It can have incredible impact in shaping effective policy, addressing community needs and moving social norms towards preventing conflict, supporting peace and human rights.

Susan Hayward is a senior program officer in the Religion and Peacemaking Center of Innovation at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are her own.

Image via Republic of Korea.

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