Pluralism as Product: Ruminations on Religion and Foreign Policy: A Crosspost from Religion in American History

Since I don’t always have time to peruse the headlines every morning, I’ve set up a few Google Alerts to keep me informed of new articles, blogs, press releases, and videos related to my interests. My Friday mornings have become a luxury not only because I have much of the day devoted to writing, but because I can review the headlines relevant to my research. For instance, this morning, not only did I learn that Shaun Casey, director of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the U.S. State Department, will be speaking at Emory next week [colleagues in Atlanta, consider me jealous], but also that the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, held a rountable discussion on the role of female religious leaders in promoting religious freedom. The headlines, and this developing (and much more public) effort by the State Department to court religious figures and groups left me pondering the state of this field of research and its relationship to American Religious History.

The fact that religion has become a significant policy and diplomatic concern for the State Department and U.S. military, I think, places the field of American Religious History/Studies at an interesting historiographical moment. And here’s my wild assertion for the day: a field that has largely put Sidney Ahlstrom in its past is being confronted by his work in the present.

As I see it, Ahlstrom’s primary concern in A Religious History of the American People is to understand American religious pluralism. To do so, he provides a narrative in tension. On one hand, he presents a nation that possessed a diversity of traditions in its early years [let’s bracket for a moment the conversation about how accurate or successful he is at this] and, on the other, a nation increasing in diversity so rapidly as to call into question what precisely unifies it. Along the way–the long and scenic route, no doubt–he posits religious liberty paired with a concern for the public good as central to religion in America and, perhaps, democracy in America as well. Analysis of the argument itself as well as the following four decades of scholarship tell us that he gave preference to white, liberal Protestants as the arbiters and custodians of this impulse, leaving all other groups standing on the sidelines or as players waiting to be tapped to enter into a game where their role would be limited and they would be pressured to conform. After important and significant work in the correction of the idea that white, liberal Protestants are at the center of American religious history, the field seems to be returning to this idea, but with attention to its power in shaping conceptual frameworks and its susceptibility in being influenced by the secular things it claimed to challenge.

While our understanding of Ahlstrom, this thesis, and his evidence have changed–and here’s my assertion for the day–the “essence” he identified for American Religious History, for the United States as an imagined community a nation endures despite a robust historiography. The idea that America and/or American democracy is exceptional continues to be traced to this notion of a unique religious toleration, particularly a consensus about its basis in religious liberty + concern for the public good–a consensus that the State Department seems to be conflating with “real” religion.  Despite numerous scholars showing the emptiness of this particular argument, the idea that America’s exceptional identity is its freedom of religion endures.

As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd pointed out this week in “Losing Faith in Faith-Based Outreach,” the internationalization of this notion of American identity and statecraft has dramatic effects:

As well intentioned as these efforts appear, they raise serious concerns about government’s relationship with religion. Such projects require the government to decide which groups count as religious and worthy of engagement. Here the state must choose among vying sects and authorities, privileging some at the expense of others. There may be no agreement within a particular religious tradition on who speaks authoritatively for that tradition, who is in and out of favor, which texts and practices represent the core of the tradition and so forth. For the government to decide which groups are in and out grants sanction to some theological understandings and practices over others.

Drawing upon, perhaps, Talal Asad (and even Heidi Klum), Shakman Hurd points to the implicit power dynamics of these initiatives. Besides the issue that the United States and others are investing resources in religious communities, there is the issue of how they are doing so. For instance, Hurd directs readers’ attention to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan to promote religious tolerance in which the military “has built religious schools and sponsored trips like the Voices of Religious Tolerance tour to Amman, Jordan, where influential Afghans toured mosques, parks and shopping malls to learn about life in a religiously tolerant country.”

It is efforts like these that seem likely to cause scholars of American religions to face Ahlstrom’s  questions again, but from outside the academy rather than within it. An e.g. of Hugh Urban’s (and David Chidester’s) methodological approach to the study of religion,  that “religion” is not “solely a product of scholars or academic institutions” but “an extremely complex historical process” occurring in the streets and, also to a significant degree, in government agencies.

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.