RELIGION AND AMERICAN DIPLOMACY
By LORETTA FULTON
Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, lamented that if she needed assistance with a military or economic issue, she had hordes of people at her fingertips, but not so with matters of religion.
Albright discussed that problem in her book, “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs,” published in 2007 by Harper Perennial.
“She literally had no one to call,” said Shaun Casey, who headed an office under President Obama designed to alleviate the problem.
Casey, an Abilene Christian University graduate, was guest speaker March 5 at his alma mater. He currently is director of the Berkley Center and a professor of the practice in Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He spoke at ACU on “What Does Abilene Have to Do With Jerusalem? Bringing Religion to American Diplomacy.”
Casey assured the students in the audience that they are receiving an education that will prepare them to do whatever they want. After graduating from ACU, Casey earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a master of divinity degree and a doctor of theology degree from Harvard Divinity School. But the foundation for those degrees and his later work came at ACU.
“A lot of the skill sets I picked up here,” he said, “helped prepare me for my work in the state department.”
In 2013, Casey was teaching at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., when he got a call from Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, who wanted Casey to head up the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Casey accepted, although he wondered how he and Kerry would mesh. Kerry is a “blue blood,” a New Englander, and a Catholic, Casey noted, while he grew up in Missouri in the Church of Christ.
But he needn’t have worried. The two worked well together and Casey succeeded in heading the office. Casey talked about why it is important to understand religion as part of diplomacy. One reason is that religion is powerful.
“We ignore it at our peril,” Casey said.
And, willful ignorance of the world’s religions has cost the United States dearly, he said, citing the invasion of Iraq as an example.
Casey hired 30 people to work in the office with more than 20 holding degrees in theology. They also had an understanding of religion in various places in the world, not just religion in textbooks.
The employees were tasked with advising Kerry when religion issues arose and training embassy employees on how to do that. They tried to change the culture of the Department of State by stressing how important it is to build relationships before war breaks out. The office was filled with people of numerous religions, although no one was asked for a religious affiliation in the interview process.
Another step toward changing the culture came with the drawing up of set of guidelines for the office, such as seeking joy in your work, building relationships, and driving out fear. Other government workers were in awe and were attracted to that culture.
“We created, I think, a remarkable inter-religious team,” Casey said.
The team created six regions worldwide, with a different religion represented in each. The team helped stem the tide of a rise in antisemitism, worked on the global refugee crisis and contributed to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Despite the success of the office, the Trump administration has decided that kind of work isn’t helpful Casey said.
In a Q&A after his talk, Casey was asked if his work affirmed his faith as a Christian.
“I do believe my faith grew,” he said.
Casey said he has been asked how people can suppress their deeply held religious beliefs in an inter-religious setting. He tried to be an example, he said.
“I do believe Christians can participate in inter-religious work,” Casey said, “to the benefit of the world.”