State Department official describes impact of understanding role of religion on foreign affairs

By Katherine Kerr

Dr. Shaun Casey, Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs in the U.S. Department of State speaks to the Religion Communicators Council convention. (Photo by George Conklin.)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (April 11) — The theme of “religious literacy” was described at a high level during the April 11 keynote speech by Shaun Casey, U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs in the State Department.

The professor of Christian ethics on leave from Wesley Theological Seminary talked about how his department within the State Department is building a repository of knowledge about the impact of faith and religion in foreign affairs.

When his work at the State Department began in 2013, he discovered that there was very little religious engagement occurring between U.S. field officers in more than 200 posts around the country. Since then, his department has created a model that includes training for field staff to have a clearer understanding about who the religious and faith leaders are in the countries to which they are assigned and how religion affects the political, social and economic landscapes in those regions.

Shaun described a “genuine hunger” among those who work in the State Department for an understanding of religion’s impact on the work that they do.

To inform State Department employees for their work in specific countries and regions, Casey’s office prepares “religious landscape documents” that offer overviews of leaders in those areas as well as what has and is happening, including involvement of foreign religious groups such as international Nongovernmental Organizations that are working with the local population to address humanitarian issues.

His office has three functions: to advise Secretary of State John Kerry on how religion affects foreign policy, to develop capacity for religious engagement and to serve as a portal for domestic and foreign religious groups who have a stake in what is happening around the world.

He offered three examples of how his department is working on the State Department’s foreign policy areas: global climate change and the perspective from religious groups on their understanding of a need to care for the earth, an anti-ISIL in Iraq effort which is focused on reconstruction of Iraq after ISIL is defeated to create a pluralistic society, and addressing policy changes that will affect religious groups eager to enter Cuba with the recent changes in the United States’ relationship with the Caribbean nation.

Engagement between State Department staff around the globe will make a difference on the ground, Casey said. When his term with the State Department ends, Casey said he will leave behind a richer set of networks with religious leaders and faith groups.

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