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.

Advertisements

“Religion-related News from Around the Web”: Giving a Critical Eye to Your Sources

Lately my mind has been on curriculum development and learning goals as I re-vamp my fall syllabi. I think I discovered a new assignment for my Introduction to Religion class. This morning, as I scrolled through the tweets on my feed, The Pew Forum (@pewforum) asked: “#Religion news junkie? Our “Religion News on the Web” feature allows you to filter articles by topic and region: pewrsr.ch/ZNBEKX.” Perfect.

In the past I had assigned students to read current events, news stories, blogs, etc. and “find” religion. Often students found the “Religion” section or blog of a popular outlet like the New York Times, or CNN”s Belief Blog, or “Religion” at the Huffington Post, all of which gave plenty of material, but, I thought, was too “obviously” religion for what I had intended and, therefore, didn’t present much of a challenge to write about. Essays would be broad summaries instead of critical reflections. Rather than fight their urge to discover “religion” [the category] by searching for the word “religion,” the Pew Forum’s “Religion News on the Web” inspired me to embrace their impulse. Here’s today’s run-down as of 10:00 AM.

http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM
http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM

“Religion-related” means clergy (nothing is more religious than the Pope, right?), a “religious” group (duh, it’s Islam, right?), and abortion. Wait. Is abortion an inherently “religious” topic? Why? (issues of life and/or death are always religious…?)

The intent of the original assignment was to get students to notice the way in which the category of religion is socially constructed and employed in various ways (by writing sympathetically of certain religious groups, but not others, for instance). The assignment worked for some, but mostly didn’t. I still think the assignment can be effective, so now I’m thinking I’ll tweak it to ask students to think of outlets, like the Pew Forum, as curators of information, defining “religion-related” topics in their own way and presenting them to the public. Their task would be to figure out what “religion” means to the source and the consequences of that presentation. Hopefully, it can be a tool for critical thinking, reflection, and deepen their understanding of the social construction of “religion.”

Making the invisible visible: An idea for the classroom

I’m a little late in noticing, but this past week was George Orwell’s birthday. To commemorate the day, some clever fans of 1984 placed party hats atop surveillance cameras around Utrecht.

                      

This celebration was posted at FRONT404 who, according to the website, is a “Dutch duo of artists consisting of Thomas voor ‘t Hekke and Bas van Oerle.” The team “tries to surprise people, taking them out of their daily reality. Using humour and playful interaction they offer new perspectives and ways of looking at the world.” They explained the Orwellian birthday party as follows:

By putting these happy party hats on the surveillance cameras we don’t just celebrate Orwell’s birthday. By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays, and that the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.

The bolded phrase (my emphasis added) caught my attention. As I’m trying to rethink my Introduction to Religion and World Religions syllabi for the fall, I’ve been spending considerable time trying to think of new ways to engage students outside of reading and post-reading discussions. Front 404’s creative approach to rendering what is normally invisible visible again leads me to think I need to put a camera in my students’ hands. Fortunately many of them already have cameras on their person 24/7. I wonder what will happen if I ask students to capture “religion” that they encounter in their daily lives. I have no idea what I may get in return, but that sounds like the making of an intriguing and exciting conversation that can begin our semester long examination of what precisely “religion” is, how we’ve come to think that is what it is, and how its presence/absence shapes our lives in ways large and small. How exactly I’m going to do this, I haven’t decided yet, but I welcome any comments or suggestions.