Office for the Cultivation of “Beautiful Flowers from the Same Garden”: A Reflection on the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

Last week two important professional events occurred: first, I graduated (thanks to everyone who flew/drove down to celebrate) and second, the Department of State announced a new office devoted to “faith-based organizations and religious institutions.” According to the Department, the creation of this office was motivated in part by religious persecution around the world, the presence of violence (curiously not associated with “religious violence”–a telling rhetorical move noted below), and the desire to spread religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

As Secretary of State John Kerry explained in his remarks earlier this week, the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives stems from a working group on religion and foreign policy. Dr. Shaun Casey, Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary and leader of the the working group will head the new office. Secretary Kerry has remarked that Casey is “perfect” for the job and Michael Kessler, Associate Director of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, told the Washington Post that Casey ““brings a lot of gravitas to the position” because he “has an extensive religious network that he will be able to leverage.” [I hope “leverage” rings in your ears for a moment.] While this may seem as a surprise to some, the creation of this office is a predictable step by the State Department, which has been openly rethinking religion and its place in international affairs for some time now [Yes, I’m being vague about the timeline on purpose].

As one can imagine, religious scholars are weighing in, especially after Secretary Kerry admitted that if he could go to college again he would major in comparative religions. Before we put a “W” in the Humanities column, some one should inform Kerry that the academic study of comparative religions is not akin to Gandhi’s assessment of the world’s religions being “beautiful flowers from the same garden” or Reza Aslan’s view that all religions are “saying the exact same things, often in exactly the same way” because they draw from the same source . Michael J. Altman gave it a try to disabuse this notion, noting that three major assertions of his religion class reveal the shortcomings of the office and the troubling aspects of its creation. What Altman’s students will soon learn, The Immanent Frame has provided to the general public in an engaging roundtable discussion with 17 scholars offering their insights to the creation of this office. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd challenges the assumption that the US government can “take religion seriously” at all due to its own history and the theoretical assumptions made in the formation of the Office alone. Helge Årsheim, Pasquale Annicchino, and Maia Hallward, among others, point to the troubling nature of the State Department establishing an office dedicated to advancing religious freedom and Melani McAlister rightly notes that the policy advanced mirrors a particular–and not universal–understanding of religion in the public sphere. …which leads some, including Austin Dacy at Religion Dispatches, to ask “Why is the State Department Opening an Office of ‘Religious Engagement'”?

While others are discussing the new and different aspects of this office–as well as its uncritical approach to “religion”–I find myself reflecting on the century-long continuity in the federal government’s approach to religion and foreign policy. There will be more posts to come (so much for my unplugged post-graduation vacation), but the short list includes the following [quotes can be found in the transcript of the Remarks linked above]:

  • Religion as primarily institutional affiliation. While the emphasis on “communities” implies “on the ground” engagement, it seems likely that the Department will work with “traditional” brick-and-mortar institutions and, primarily Abrahamic traditions. More importantly, the State Department will likely see only what it is looking for. Rather than stay attuned to the ways in which the naming and claiming of “religion” creates and sustains power dynamics among communities and nations, the Department, it seems, will marshal resources to specific faith-communities.
    • “I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together. You will have the support of this Department in doing so, and you will have great leadership from my friend, Dr. Shaun Casey, who is going to lead the charge to integrate our engagement with faith communities with our diplomacy and with our development work.”
  • Religion as synonymous with “morality” or “virtue.” The operating assumption of this office and the State Department generally is that all religions are “good” and exist to promote the “common good” [what that is we somehow intuitively know]
    • “All of these faiths are virtuous and they are in fact, most of them, tied together by the golden rule, as well as fundamental concerns about the human condition, about poverty, about relationships between people, our responsibilities each to each other. And they all come from the same human heart.”
  • This assumption about the virtuousness of all faiths contributes to the trend of the State Department identifying “true” religion or “real” religion (i.e. “good” religions”) from “bad religions,” and therefore participating in the active classification of theological truth. Note, for example, the way in which Secretary Kerry dismisses the possibility of violence performed in the name of religion (it’s own kind of rhetorical and authoritative maneuver), in this case with Islam.
    • “our religious leaders who work to heal, we learn a great deal, which stands in stark contrast to violent extremists who seek to destroy and never talk about building a school or a community, or providing health care or succor to anybody” [“violent extremists” are not and cannot be themselves “religious” leaders]
    • “And I have talked at length with people like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or even King Abdullah, Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and others who are engaged in interfaith efforts, all of whom recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence.” [Note how faith can be “hijacked” and when that hijacking occurs it is based on an “interpretation” and not “facts.”]
  • Identification of America as religiously plural yet primarily evangelical and, somehow as as result, distinct from “the Muslim world.”
    • “I had the privilege of giving an address at Yale University a number of years ago to a gathering of evangelicals from around America and imams, muftis, ayatollahs, clerics from the Muslim world – an improbable gathering you might think at first blush. And for three days people worked and struggled with the effort to find the common ground.” [Note also the notion that there is such a thing as “common ground” and it exists in the singular “the common ground.”]
  • “Religion” as based on a particular Protestant normativity (white, elite, and liberal in its theology) that bases its Christianity on an ethic of service for the greater good, presumes this ethic to be universal, and considers all other beliefs/identifications as not truly religious if it/they disagrees with this ethic or its theological basis. 
    • “what we are doing is guided by the conviction that we have to find ways to translate our faiths into efforts that unify for the greater good. That can be done without crossing any lines whatsoever.One of my favorite passages from the Scripture sums up what Shaun and I think this effort is really all about. It’s a familiar Gospel of Mark in which Jesus says to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.”
    • “I believe that public leadership is now and always has been and should be a form of service. It requires a bona fide effort to give to others and to do for others. And it is the kind of commitment that Shaun has exemplified throughout his life, which has been selfless and devoted and heartfelt.So each of us, I believe, needs to do our best to answer this call of service and to help each other to hear it in a common spirit of obedience, humility, and love. I’m enormously grateful that Shaun has answered that call, that he has been willing to come here to the Department to help us integrate these policies, and really to magnify, augment, grow our capacity to meet the challenges of this planet.”
    • “I’m convinced that all of you will agree that one of the toughest challenges that we face in terms of global diplomacy and relationships around the world between peoples nowadays, from sectarian strife to the challenges of many intractable, frozen conflicts, to the challenges of simply understanding people – one people to another – or even monumental challenges like the sectarian strife that we see tearing countries and regions apart, as well as the enormous challenges of things like global climate change, which really is a challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians – safe guarders of God’s creation.”

It is that final bolded fragment (emphasis added) that reflects the role of religion in US foreign policy in long twentieth century. As astute consumers of information, we all see the connections to 9-11 and the US government’s heightened awareness of Al-Queda and sectarian violence; but the operating assumption of the US as a guardian of “God’s creation” has a longer history, one that I see as clearly connected to President Wilson who pledged  the nation’s resources to illustrate how America was the “champion of mankind” almost 100 years ago.

“America may make peaceful conquest of the world. And I say that will all the greater confidence, gentlemen, because, I believe, and hope that the belief does not spring merely from the hope, that, when the present great conflict in Europe is over, the world is going to wear a different aspect. …I believe that the spirit which as hitherto reigned in the hearts of Americans, and in like people everywhere in the world, will assert itself once for all in international affairs, and that, if America preserves her poise, preserves her self-possession, preserves her attitude of friendliness towards all the world, she may have the privilege, whether in one form or another, of being the mediating influence by which these things may be induced.

I am not now speaking of governmental mediation. I have not that in mind at all. I mean spiritual mediation. I mean the recognition of the world that here is a country that has always wanted things done that way, and whose merchants, when they carry their goods, will carry their ideas along with them, and that this spirit of give and take, this spirit of success only by having better goods and better brains and better training will, through their influence, spread the more rapidly to the ends of the world.” [1]

Obviously, I’ll be keeping a close eye on what develops, so stay tuned. The reactions by conservatives and conservative evangelicals proves promising for future posts.

 

 

[1] Luncheon Address to the Chamber of Commerce of Columbus Ohio, 10 Dec 1915, Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 35:327.

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Crosspost: On the Road Again: Encounters in American Religious History

This is a crosspost from the Religion in American History blog.

The first weekend in June I spent 14 hours in a car driving to Indianapolis for the Religion in American Culture Conference. Despite the long drive, it was well worth it as Emily’s summary attests. Not getting my fill of road trips or summer conference season, I made another 14 hour drive ten days later. This time I headed straight up I-95 to Arlington, Virginia to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). A relative newcomer to the Society this was my first meeting and it will not be my last. In addition to the lovely mid-afternoon coffee and snacks between sessions (you had me at “complimentary coffee break”) and the dinner and dance Friday night (yes, that’s right. There was a dance. I promise it did not resemble a middle school wallflower stand-in nor was it a Miley twerk fest), there were a number of panels and papers of interest to RiAH readers.

In the final panel of RAAC, “The Future of the Study of Religion and American Culture,” John McGreevy listed three directions for the future of the field: 1. the category of “nones” (those claiming no religious affiliation) and, correspondingly, secularism; 2. global and transnational studies that place the United States in a global context and/or explorations of points of contact, fluidity, and movement between America and the rest of the world; 3. religion and political history. In identifying these three areas, McGreevy noted scholarship that exemplifies or encourages research in these areas, but he also asserted the increased importance of these three areas in years to come. After three days at SHAFR, however, I am convinced that McGreevy’s future is here and scholars of American religion, especially the historians among us, have important conversation partners outside the AAR and within SHAFR.

Diplomatic History is the journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. More information about it can be found at http://history.colorado.edu/programs-publications/diplomatic-history
 

 

My interest in SHAFR started with Andrew Preston’s seminal article “Bridging the Gap between the Sacred and the Secular in the History of American Foreign Relations” (Diplomatic History 30, no. 5 (2006): 783-812). This piece summoned many historians to take religion seriously in diplomatic history; so seriously, in fact, that Preston noted at the most recent AHA meeting that it probably could not be printed today. His recent book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (Knopf, 2012), makes it difficult to argue that religion doesn’t “matter” to US foreign relations. (Blake Renfo’s RiAH review can be read here) The panel devoted to “Evangelical Projections” at this year’s SHAFR conference, chaired by Preston, made a strong case for religion as not just an “influence” in diplomatic history, but a “force” to be reckoned with. For example, Lauren Turek presented fascinating research on the way in which Pat Robertson served as a tacit spokesperson for Rios Montt’s regime in Guatemala in the 1980s. Turek demonstrated how Montt’s “Project David” campaign to ensure a “moral” government that exposed communist sympathizers received such strong support and coverage from Robertson and his followers that President Reagan could not ignore evangelicals’ demands that the United States support the regime. Also bringing a global context to American religions, Melanie McAlister drew attention to the Southern Baptist Convention’s response to apartheid, illustrating the power of Southern Christians outside the United States and an understudied area of global, social justice concern among this evangelical group. The final presentation was by Benjamin Brandenburg who explained Billy Graham’s “global footprint” through his tour of the Soviet Union. Complicating the simple narrative of evangelicals despising “godless” communists, Brandenburg asserted a sort of Cold War conversion in Graham’s position toward confronting communism.

While this session was clearly billed as the “religious” one, this was certainly not the only panel of interest to readers. Several papers along the way brought to mind scholarship discussed regularly here. For example, David Painter’s presentation at the “Teaching New Topics in American Foreign Relations” panel centered on the argument that historians must integrate oil (not merely policies about oil) into the history of US foreign relations. Hewing closely to research by Darren Dochuk and Mike Pasquier, Panter discussed the seven sisters of big oil and dated the significance of oil back to the Anglo-American switch from coal to oil during the 1920s and 1930s (a period of recent interest to many American religions scholars). On the same panel, Nicole Phelps introduced the audience to a case study she uses to illustrate the complicated relationships between local, state, national, and international politics: a court case (and others related to it) in which 11 Sicilians were lynched in NOLA…a flashpoint of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and class that reminded me of the complex study Emily is working on. In more cases than I expected these historians included “religion” and were encouraging others to pursue a rigorous study of religion as the future for their field. In the panel on “Teaching America to the World,” for instance, Sandra Scanlon explained that is often discussions of religion that draw her Irish students in and encouraged members to follow in Matt Sutton’s footsteps and apply for the Mary Ball Washington Professorship of American History. Finally, the Plenary Session on “America in the World in the Nineteenth Century” ended with the conclusion that there are two major themes primed to dominate the future of SHAFR: religion and empire.

What I was struck by most was not that these historians focused on religion, but that they focused on religion so much but did not consider themselves to be doing the work of religion/religious studies/religious history. Our colleagues at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion would have a rich data set to consider had I conducted a more formal ethnographic study, but, based on personal anecdotes, I was surprised at the number of folks examining the role of a missionary/mission and the way s/he/it influenced the State Department’s position toward another country OR conducting archival research on a person or group who invested in or profited from a religious organization, but did not consider themselves–as scholars–to be seriously researching “religion.” [“Personally, I’m a Christian, but that doesn’t factor into my work”; “You study religion? I guess I kind of do too. I study a missionary group in…”] Forget the “nones” and their refusal to self-identify with a religious institution and let’s consider for a moment the scholars who talk about “religion” and don’t consider their work to be about religion. For that matter, let’s think about the way in which I was/am convinced that these historians are doing religious studies work even though they do not self-identify as such.

Following up on McGreevy’s provocative list for the future of scholarship on American religion, as we collectively ponder secularism–its formations, its contours, its relationship to the State, the existence of a secular metaphysics as distinct from church or state–we seem to be turning toward “politics,” that is the set of actions conducted by the state, at various levels. This seems to be happening at the same time that historians of American foreign relations, at least, are acutely attuned to the importance of culture, “meaning-making,” and the like in their own work. Scholars of American religions recent attention to secularism/secularization has much to offer historians of American foreign relations. Likewise, panelists at SHAFR demonstrate an impressive immersion in primary sources that speak to the the actors, organizations, places, and themes central to the study of American religions. I hope our paths continue to cross.

Perhaps this can be a conversation had in the comments and next year at SHAFR. The 2014 conference is chaired by Andrew Preston and will be held in Lexington, Kentucky next June. Information about this year’s and next year’s conferences can be found here. For those interested in American foreign relations broadly, there are many opportunities and resources available through SHAFR. Though highly competitive, SHAFR offers dissertation research grants and fellowships at $4,000 and $20,000, respectfully. They also have fellowships available for grad students conducting research with sources in languages other than English, for recent graduates working on their first monograph, and for women.

 

“Kerry Admits It”: Setting up the Dominoes in Foreign Relations History

Last week Senator John Kerry received his nomination to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. During his confirmation hearing, Kerry turned the tables on Congress saying, “I’m particularly aware that in many ways the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine.” He continued,

“I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home – and the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”

And then, rather bluntly, he said, “foreign policy is economic policy.” (Video of his full testimony can be found here.) As Ira Chernus pointed out in his post “Kerry Admits It: Economic Policy is Foreign Policy,”  you can almost hear some historians of US foreign policy cheering. They have been waiting for this moment of intellectual affirmation. Chernus explained,

“Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.” And now these scholars can rest assured that a person in leadership put their scholarly hunch on record in public testimony. No further inquiry needed. Follow the money trail and you’ll learn what you need to know about foreign relations history.

Chernus isn’t satisfied with this explanation and neither am I. Whereas Chernus insists that Kerry is another example of myth-making in the upper echelons of state power, I think Kerry offers an opportunity to explore a fundamental principle of historical research: the history of foreign policy cannot be boiled down definitively to a single cause. Looking for a single causation–and, at times, I would argue focusing exclusively on causation–can lose sight of the greater context from which policies develop as well as the broader implications of those policies. Tracing the relationship between economic policy and foreign policy certainly contributes to our working knowledge of what happened or why it happened the way it did, but it risks focusing too narrowly on the order of dominoes and the way they fell to produce foreign policy initiatives. Association, as we all know, does not imply causation. So, to those who find themselves cheering, we might ask: assuming economic strength, how do we explain why we spend money on this instead of that? Ideologies play in important role in determining the parameters of “good” policy  versus “bad” policy, even if the consensus is that they are not the direct cause of the choice.