State Department Finds Religion, But Whose?

So here’s the question: is the State Department’s newly created Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives the long-awaited answer to the problem of a myopically secular US diplomacy? Or, instead, is it another example of a long line ham-fisted US attempts to shape religion elsewhere to fit the needs of its foreign policy?

Scholars of religion and foreign policy have argued both positions, and for good reason, since the US government isn’t quite sure what it means when it says it wants to engage “religious groups,” and advocates for more engagement—both within and without the State Department—have their own agendas.

The problem is that people mean very different things when they talk about supporting a US foreign policy that is more attentive to religion.

First, people sometimes mean that the US should promote religious freedom, a principle enshrined in US law by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a seemingly unassailable but in fact intensely problematic legislation that has put the US on record as supporting religious freedom—sometimes.

(This meant a good deal in the development of US policy toward Sudan, which IRFA-associated groups named as the Number One violator of religious freedom for five years in a row, as US policy evolved to support the country’s division into Sudan and South Sudan in 2010. But the law plays virtually no role in US policy toward Saudi Arabia, given that, for 15 years, the president has waived sanctions on the basis of US national security interests.)

More recently, people generally mean that the US should engage “religious actors,” particularly groups on the ground in the Global South. Sometimes these groups are doing humanitarian work and may help implement US development programs. In theory, I’m not terribly worried about this, since I think religious groups of all types are indeed crucial actors in things like anti-poverty work and medical programs. In fact, this is already happening, as the USAID generously supports international aid organizations with a religious mission, as long as they don’t use the money for proselytizing.

There have been serious problems with the implementation, however, since many of the groups that get USAID funds themselves work with local (usually Christian) NGOs, thus shoring up the authority and resources of certain groups over others. The question is whether it is possible to do this better, or if the whole project is inherently flawed and unsalvageable.

In addition, through the new office, the US is also likely to directly support groups that promote particular interpretations of their own religion—specifically those that are friendly to US policy. Here, “moderate Muslims” are first on the list. As Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd has pointed out, the decision of which groups to support, with funds and perhaps visits from the Secretary of State, is fraught in ways that US policy barely acknowledges.

Throwing US power and money behind some groups and not others may exacerbate religious or other conflicts, and certainly can affect the self-definition of people who quickly figure out the lay of the land. I saw this first-hand when I interviewed Sudanese refugees in Egypt in 2006; they were quick to realize that being a “persecuted Christian” was a good idea if you wanted to get asylum status or help from UN programs.

Finally, when people talk about religion and international affairs, they sometimes mean that religious people in the US should play a leading role in developing foreign policy on religious issues. Since, as advocates are very fond of saying, the diplomats at State don’t really know how to handle religion, then somebody needs to teach them. The new State Department office is a dream come true in this regard, and it emerged in part from the work of folks who see their own religious values as particularly beneficial in helping the US engage religious groups abroad.

Let’s take the Institute for Global Engagement, for example. IGE is one of the most important think tanks in this game, perhaps along with the Berkely Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown. IGE’s leader Chris Seiple has been an indefatigable advocate for more US foreign policy attention to religion. He writes for Foreign Affairs, works with the State Department on training its diplomats, and publishes an impressive journal, the Review of Faith and International Affairs.

Under his leadership, IGE has also led a series of international delegations to places like Laos, China, and Vietnam. It has also sponsored a series of visits to Pakistan’s Peshawar region, where it created a group called “Faith Friends” to promote “tolerance” and interfaith cooperation. In part, IGE can do things like this because, unlike the many right-wing think tanks focused on “Islam,” it is genuinely interested in dialogue.

But what kind of dialogue? Although IGE sounds like a typical (read presumably secular) inside-the-Beltway think tank, it isn’t. The organization was founded by Chris’s father Robert A. Seiple, who first made his name as the head of the evangelical international aid and development agency, World Vision; before that, he was president of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Seiple then became the first US Ambassador for Religious Freedom in 1998.

Ultimately Seiple resigned his position as ambassador after it became clear that he was facing down a far more powerful faction that demanded that the US take a highly confrontational approach in dealing with what they saw as Muslim persecution of religious minorities, namely Christians. It wasn’t that Seiple opposed the agenda of supporting “persecuted Christians” and other religious groups; he just thought that careful engagement, support for “moderates,” and so-called Track II diplomacy was the way to go. And he thought Christians had been too long part of the problem. In 2005, for example, I attended a Christian (largely evangelical) conference on “Proselytism and Persecution” organized by IGE. There, Seiple argued that evangelicals, with their commitments to open proselytization—walking through Riyadh randomly throwing Bibles into courtyards, for example, were not being helpful. 

But Seiple’s own evangelical investments were equally clear: he believed that moderate Muslims could be engaged, but that moderate evangelicals were key to that engagement, serving both in and out of government.

Robert Seiple is an evangelical leader who knows how to reach evangelical audiences. Thomas Farr, who directs the religious freedom project at the Berkley Center, described how Seiple could “draw at will from an enormous reservoir of biblical imagery, delivered in the cadences and tones of an evangelical preacher.” Seiple can speak to secular audiences too, and from the beginning his message at IGE was that American evangelicals could do better in understanding and engaging with people from other religions, and that, when they did, they could also do important work in cultivating more “moderate” religion abroad.

Most recently, IGE has developed a program called “Women of Faith for Peace and Security,” which, among other things, cultivates collaboration between US Christian women and Muslim women in the Middle East, supporting Muslims who interpret their faith in ways that “they are not oppressed by it through misinterpretation.” The project is based on the rather unimpeachable idea that women should be involved in thinking and planning initiatives around peace and security; the presumption, however, is that “women of faith” are particularly of interest in this regard.

The Women of Faith project does on-the-ground support for Syrian women in Jordanian refugee camps. Perhaps more significantly, it has done impressive work bringing together for conferences and meetings various religious NGOs and think tanks (TEAR Fund, the group Religions for Peace, The Princeton Univ. Office of Religious Life) along with faith-friendly organizations like the Carter Center and the Committee of Religious NGOs in the United Nations. In other words, IGE is a player, and it knows how to connect across lines that might once have separated openly proselytizing organizations like the TEAR Fund from more mainstream and vaguely religious institutions like the Carter Center—and to give that collaboration the salutary imprint of a push for women, peace, and reconciliation. 

The point is not that IGE is a bad organization. In the world of evangelical foreign policy activism, it is quite a good one. But the organization has a mission, which includes both teaching evangelical Christians to think about global issues and teaching supposedly secular Washington that religious groups matter a great deal for the conduct of US foreign policy. The surge of enthusiasm about State’s new agenda has too often carried with it the assumption that when the US government decides to engage religion abroad, religious Americans are best equipped to teach us how to do the work.

Winnifred Sullivan has usefully argued that the problem with the new office is not a legal problem: there is nothing in the constitution that would be a barrier to this new office, and, after all, the US government “engages” religion all the time. Church and state are not now and never have been entirely separate. And of course the state department does need to understand religion, to take it seriously, to engage with religious and non-religious NGOs around the world.

But now, having found religion, the State department needs to watch out who they give it to: if it is taken to be true that the US government needs to turn (first or primarily) to religious people to do the work of engaging religious groups abroad, then religion, and inevitably specific religious groups, will be part of US foreign policy in ways that raise serious questions about our commitment to disestablishment.