Why is the State Department Opening an Office of “Religious Engagement”?

In her 1969 essay “On Violence,” Hannah Arendt described bureaucracy as government by an intricate system in which no one person can be held responsible, the “rule by Nobody.” Atheism, then, would be the view that it’s bureaucracy all the way up. Now a movement within the U.S. State Department perceives atheism—or at least de facto secularism—going all the way up the diplomatic bureaucracy. And it aims to change that.

Today the State Department announced that Shaun Casey, professor of Christian Ethics, will run a new office that will “focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen U.S. development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.”

As Amy Frykholm noted in Religion & Politics this past spring, the move cuts against the cultural grain of American diplomatic circles. Until a year ago, for example, the Foreign Service Institute offered no courses focused on religion. The office of religious engagement arose from the efforts of a number of State Department employees including the former policy staffer Judd Birdsall, who in 2009 started an informal discussion forum that was to become known as the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Last October, the working group submitted a white paper (posted by working group member Chris Seiple) proposing a permanent institution housed at State.

“In many places around the world,” begins the Background and Rationale section, 

understanding religion is imperative to understanding the local civil society. Gallup polls show that four out of five people on the planet believe in something greater than themselves, often viewing all sectors of life through the prism of faith. Religious faith and adherence is often a source of conflict that contributes to global instability and undermines long term U.S. interests. However, those same forces of faith contribute much good to civil society, and when properly engaged can promote human progress and peaceful coexistence on a global scale.

Among several other “products for improved engagement with religion,” the white paper goes on to recommend the development of guidelines for complying with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

At what point would a federal agency’s engagement with religion become an unconstitutional marriage of church and state?

Given the byzantine state of current Establishment Clause jurisprudence, perhaps the best answer is, God only knows. Today the Court’s primary analytical tools for determining violations of Establishment are the notions of excessive government entanglement with religious institutions and government “endorsement” of religion, which, in Justice O’Connor’s words, constitutes “a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

There is a relevant precedent in the 2007 case Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., but it is not one that lends strength to the separationists’ elbows. In Hein, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation brought an Establishment Clause challenge to conferences convened under the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program at which religious organizations were assisted in securing federal grants, arguing that such assistance favored religious organizations over comparable secular ones. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that because no legislative body had directly authorized the funding, taxpayers had no legal standing to bring suit in federal court. Under this ruling, even if the State Department’s new engagement activities resulted in direct funding to religious organizations, they might nevertheless be immune from constitutional challenge.

Engagement with whom?

Constitutional or not, official interfacing with “faith-based organizations” will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as “religions” and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.

As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd writes at The Immanent Frame:

Religious outreach requires diplomats and practitioners to seek out leaders and spokespersons for strategic dialogue. Nontraditional religions and unorthodox versions of protected religions are usually absent. Groups that don’t count as “religions” at all because the authorities don’t recognize them as such go missing. Dissidents and doubters are nowhere to be found. USAID’s RelHarmony program has already confronted this dilemma, observing in its final report that: “religious leaders from Albania’s four traditional religious groups were, with few exceptions, supportive of interfaith initiatives, which included all traditional religions, however their views differed on the question of including members of non-traditional religious groups in RelHarmony activities.”

Often it is precisely the dissidents, the doubters, and non-traditional believers who are most in need of recognition, and who often offer the most-needed perspectives on the prospects for peace, the rule of law, and minority rights in their societies. When the U.S. government bestows high-level diplomatic attention instead on select (typically male, adult, and non-democratically appointed) spokespersons, it aids them in consolidating their own power and authority within their communities.

The Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group does not ignore this potential for discrimination. It writes of the importance of partnering with “women religious leaders” and “other non-traditional religious leaders, particularly youth religious leaders.”

We are left with two big questions about the State Department’s project. First, what is the rationale for restricting engagement to religion when it could encompass all of civil society? In fact, the original white paper put forward the option of a more inclusive Office of Non-Governmental Engagement and Partnerships.

Second, if the project can be restricted to religion, is it about engaging religions or about engaging the religious? One expects the diplomatic impulse to favor religions as interlocutors, since in practice this means knowing whom to invite to the next panel or luncheon (four out of five people being mediocre public speakers at best). But perhaps the more profoundly bureaucratic impulse would be to admit that there might be nobody at the top, that there are just lots of people whose differing, contested versions of their identities are at least as crucial to American interests as their confessional commonalities.