Written by Don Byrd
In 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry announced the creation of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) within the State Department to advise him on matters related to religion and to interact with religious leaders on behalf of the Department. Kerry asked Shaun Casey to head the new office, and implement his belief that understanding religion is key to U.S. diplomacy around the world.
Following a reorganization under new Secretary Rex Tillerson, however, the duties and staff of the RGA are being absorbed into the International Religious Freedom office. Casey critiques the change in a stinging new column for Religion & Politics. He explains the work of the office under his leadership:
While I cannot summarize every line of work the RGA office pursued, let me give some highlights. We drew on the academic and diplomatic expertise of our staff, government partners in and outside the State Department, and academic resources around the globe to be able to understand lived religion, in geographical context. There is no such thing as religion in the abstract, no essence of religion to be isolated abstractly and then applied to the world. Religion needs to be understood in specific social, political, and historical contexts, interacting with myriad social and political dynamics. It is phenomenally complex, and policy makers are constantly tempted to follow stereotypes. Our job was to resist stereotypes and interpret religious dynamics in a manner that reflected nuance and study.
Likewise, we had a commitment to radical inclusivity, which meant we built a set of contacts and relationships with thousands of religious actors, organizations, and communities, meeting with any that wanted to meet with us, without endorsing any particular theological commitments or domestic political standing. Many of these interlocutors are now shut out of the State Department as the RGA office has withered to under five staffers in the first eight months of the administration. Now it is unclear who they will be meeting with as the State Department reorganizes. It is clear that the senior leadership at the White House and the State Department does not want to engage a broad set of religious communities, preferring instead to focus mainly on evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.